3Qs: Jim Barksdale, Mississippi business leader

By NEMS Daily Journal

Internationally successful businessman Jim Barksdale has long made an impact on education in Mississippi. The philanthropist has funded the Barksdale Reading Institute and the University of Mississippi’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, and he has long been interested in the subject. As he nears the end of his brief tenure as interim executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, Barksdale was among the keynote speakers on Thursday at the CREATE Foundation’s State of the Region meeting. Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer spoke with him about the status of the state’s education system.

Q. What is your perspective on the state’s needs from your stint at the Mississippi Development Authority?
A. The most important thing we can do in this state is to continue our efforts to improve workforce development. Most people think of that as job training, but really workforce development begins with pre-K, K-12, community colleges and universities.
They are intricately linked. We are seeing progress in some areas, but we need to do more to improve our school systems and graduation rates.

Q. There are several metrics that can be used to measure education success. Which do you see as the most important?
A. The most important single measurement would be third-grade reading scores. Mississippi has made more progress than any state except Alabama since 2005. Another important metric is graduation rate. Graduation rates are tied to early reading scores. There is also a direct correlation between being able to read proficiently at the beginning of fourth grade and lower teen pregnancy and incarceration rates.
All children can learn.

Q. There has been much talk about expanding early childhood education in Mississippi. Where do you see its future?
A. The CREATE Foundation has given money to Building Blocks, a trial undertaking in its third year to show what can be done in existing child care centers. We believe the most efficient and effective way to improve children’s learning capabilities and expand learning at an early age is when they are in child care centers. About 70 percent of the state’s children are in various centers. We think that is the most likely way to reach them.
Adding a 14th grade is really expensive and only addresses 4-year olds, and you have to get to them before that.
I’m encouraged and pleased so far with what we are learning from Building Blocks and Excel by 5, a similar program. It is the most logical and affordable way to improve pre-K in our state. Mississippi is one of only 11 states in the nation and the only one in the South that doesn’t have state-funded early childhood education.