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Barksdale: Improved reading skills essential

By By Steve Gillespie/The Meridian Star
Nov. 12, 2001
Claiborne Barksdale has one major goal for his work: help improve the reading ability of students in schools across Mississippi, including Meridian.
Barksdale is executive director of the Barksdale Reading Institute, which is helping fund programs designed to improve reading scores in prekindergarten through third-grade levels.
Barksdale recently visited two Meridian schools Crestwood and Witherspoon elementary schools that are using grants from his organization for materials and training to improve reading.
Institute helps
Barksdale manages the institute founded by his brother, Jim Barksdale, former chief executive officer of Netscape. The Barksdale Reading Institute was established through a $100 million donation to the University of Mississippi Foundation.
The institute is based in Oxford. It funds 11 faculty members at Mississippi's eight public universities who help train teachers in methods of improving student reading skills; it also awards money to public elementary schools with a large number of students who have low reading scores.
Crestwood and Witherspoon elementary schools each received competitive grant funds from the Barksdale Reading Institute for the current school year for materials and training to improve student reading skills.
Crestwood received a first-year grant for $116,187. Witherspoon received a first-year grant for $65,000. The institute plans to fund the grants for five years.
Important skill
Barksdale said reading is the core competency of any learned society or individual. He said opportunities for participating in the world and its economy diminish for people who are unable to read well.
Barksdale said failure to read is not stupidity. He said any child with a normal range of intelligence can learn to read. He said the source of reading problems comes from a lack of early childhood exposure to language and books.
Children who don't read well are often labeled as ignorant by their peers and develop disciplinary problems, he said. They typically drop out of school in the ninth grade and sometimes end up in the criminal justice system.
Program details
The institute has reading coordinators that go to each of the schools one day a week to help the faculty implement the Mississippi Reading Reform Model.
The reading program was sanctioned in the late 1990s by the Mississippi Legislature. Pilot programs were funded for six school districts, which showed good results.
Barksdale said parental involvement is critical for the success of the program: "We have got to get as many parents as possible to cooperate with us in helping their children learn how to read."
Gauging results
Parent-family liaisons at the schools make at least 12 home visits to take materials to parents of students who have difficulty reading.
Barksdale said it is too soon to expect reading scores to show improvement as a result of the institute's efforts.
He said it would be fall 2004 before Witherspoon and Crestwood would see results that reflect any impact the reading institute may have on the two schools.
Steve Gillespie is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3233, or e-mail him at