A Push to Help Struggling Young Readers in the Deep South

One of the best anti-poverty measures is ensuring that children can read by the end of third grade. Studies indicate that children who lack proficiency in reading by that time are more likely to drop out of high school and are at greater risk of poverty in adulthood. More specifically, according to recent research“about 31 percent of poor African-American students and 33 percent of poor Hispanic students who did not hit the third-grade proficiency mark failed to graduate" from high school. 

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the country’s leading funders of policies and programs to boost the life chances of poor children, is well aware of the implications for children who lack literacy. And as we've reported before, it's keenly focused on ensuring that children are reading by third grade, making a number of grants to this end that target disadvantaged kids. 

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Now, the Michigan-based funder has stepped forward with a new $2.4 million grant designed to improve third grade literacy and reading achievement, as well as reading instruction, in the state of Mississippi.

For Mississippi, the help could not come at a better time. The poorest state in the nation, it ranks at the bottom of the 50 states in reading proficiency among its elementary students. A new law, known as the Third Grade Gate, requires all third grade students in Mississippi to meet minimum benchmarks in reading for promotion to fourth grade. The state’s board of education sets the passing score, and although thousands of the state’s third graders are expected to fail, they will get additional chances in the summer to pass the test, enabling them to advance to the fourth grade.

Kellogg designated Mississippi one of its priority funding sites in 2007, and in 2013, opened a regional office in Jackson, the state’s capital city. Over the years, the funder has supported numerous projects in the Magnolia State, with most grants concentrated in Jackson, the coastal area of East Biloxi, and Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta region. Sunflower is one of the poorest counties in the nation. According to the Mississippi Center for Justice, “Sunflower County has some of the worst health statistics and economic disparity and is still one of the most racially segregated areas in the U.S." Kellogg's focus on this place is an example of this funder's commitment to helping some of the most marginalized communities in the nation. 

Related - Raising MississippiKellogg Embraces a Tough Slog in the Deep South

Under this new reading grant, teachers who are certified under the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards will act as literacy coaches, mentoring other Mississippi teachers to improve their instruction and impact more struggling readers in grades K-3. Mississippi ranks seventh in the nation for board-certified teachers, with 3,740, or 10 percent of the state’s teaching force, holding such certification. As an incentive to achieve this accomplishment, Mississippi teachers who achieve board certification are paid an annual salary stipend of $6,000.

Board certification under NBPTS is a rigorous peer-review process. Studies cited by NBPTS suggest that students of board-certified teachers outperform their peers in classrooms led by teachers who lack such certification.

The funder hopes the Mississippi program will reach 30,000 students over three years, reducing the number of third graders who are held back. Kellogg clearly believes in the potential for the NBPTS to move the needle on student achievement. In 2014, the funder awarded the board $1.5 million to put K-3 teachers in six states on a path to board certification. The model operated similarly to a residency program for physicians, with novice teachers learning under experienced, board-certified teachers.