Agencies aim to improve reading

By The Associated Press

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — The Lafayette County Literacy Council and the United Way of Oxford-Lafayette County are working together on a new initiative aimed at ensuring students in early grades are reading at their appropriate level.

This new effort, called Grade-Level Reading, is part of a national program that these two agencies plan to introduce to the community next year.

Local leaders say this new program will complement another early education effort already under way in the community — Excel by 5.

The Excel By 5 program is in its second year of certification and is focusing on how to better prepare children, ages 5 and younger, for kindergarten. The Grade-Level Reading initiative builds on that program and helps make sure children from kindergarten to fourth grade are reading proficiently by the end of the third grade.

“This is a perfect extension of the Excel by 5 coalition’s work — the next part of the pipeline, in fact,” said Meridith Wulff, director of the Lafayette County Literary Council.

By helping those who have reading problems at an early age, the entire community will benefit, Wulff said.

“Statistics show that by increasing the number of kids reading at grade-level by the end of third grade, we will increase those kids’ chances of graduating from high school, going to college and staying out of jail, which is good for the entire community,” she said.

Oxford and Lafayette County schools are often touted for their successes, but 48 percent of third-graders and 38 percent of fourth graders in the local schools are not yet reading proficiently, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

Mississippi is near the bottom for reading scores, lower than 45 other states, according to the Nation’s Report Card for 2011.

The local Grade-Level Reading effort is just getting started. A planning meeting will be held in January.

“We currently have several community leaders and organizations who have committed to participating in the planning process the United Way, the Lafayette County Literacy Council, the city schools, the county schools, faculty and administration within the School of Education, university representatives, and other local nonprofit, educational organizations as well as city, state and county agencies,” Wulff said.

United Way is also examining one of the root causes of students not doing well in school — poverty.

“We are focused on poverty and reading as United Way goes forward,” Kathy Sukanek, director of United Way, said at a recent Lafayette County Board of Supervisors meeting. “Our new focus is on root causes rather than individuals.”

Sukanek said the United Way’s ongoing support of agencies will not change, but it will have a new focus on what causes the problems.

“One way we have already partnered toward that goal is with Excel by 5,” Sukanek said. “We need to increase the number of kids reading and increase the number of kids ready for school. We will talk over the year how we might do that together.”