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Barksdale reading institute.

Mississippi, celebrated for its literary giants, has not fared as well when it comes to literacy rates. One forward-thinking couple decided this was completely unacceptable, and they set a plan in motion to change the paths of Mississippi's under-resourced children.


The Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) was established as a non-profit in 1999 with a $100-million endowment from Jim Barksdale and his late wife, Sally. Based in Oxford, BRI has made early childhood education a top priority and has worked to improve dramatically the reading skills of children in grades K-3 in historically low-performing public schools. The partnerships BRI has formed with the Mississippi Department of Education and the state's public schools and universities have strengthened the way reading is being taught to children.


"While we have been able to document success in improving reading instruction and reading scores, we still have a long way to go to make the far-reaching and sustainable large-scale changes our schools need to improve overall literacy," said Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of Barksdale Reading Institute. "Based on a decade of research, we are convinced that in order to ensure effective instruction for every student, an effective leader must be in place to create a climate of accountability and a demand for excellence." To this end, BRI, with full support of the Mississippi Department of Education, is in the process of hiring highly-qualified veteran principals who will be placed in up to five low-performing schools located around the state. These principals, all with a world-class track record, will be given the full authority necessary to rapidly transform a low-performing school into a high-performing school.

Also underway at the institute is the Mississippi Building Blocks (MBB) initiative, a largely privately-funded pilot program set up to strengthen the institute's work with 35-50 early childhood centers in the state. Having raised almost $7 million dollars for this multi-year effort, MBB will serve approximately 1,000 children annually, from birth to age four, over a four-year trial period. "For 20 consecutive days, we will place a classroom mentor in each center while equipping each center with approximately $3,000 worth of customized materials," Barksdale explained. "We'll offer business advice to participating centers, scholarships to teachers, and a stipend for those teachers who earn their Child Development Associate credential." Parent advocates will educate parents and families in recognizing developmental milestones in their children and engage them in early education through home visits and monthly meetings.

Throughout the four-year project, an independent evaluator will perform a rigorous assessment of the program's results with the ultimate goal of showing the Mississippi Legislature and the governor data supporting funding of MBB. Barksdale is optimistic about the potential success of the program. "Mississippi is the only Southern state that does not have a state-supported early childhood program, and we need it more than anybody."

FOR MORE INFORMATION on the Barksdale Reading Institute or its initiatives, visit or
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Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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