By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – More than 30 years ago, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal embarked on an ambitious plan to improve literacy in Mississippi.
The late Journal Publisher George McLean was discouraged by low reading scores of Lee County school children and was determined to do something about it. So he donated $1.1 million to fund a reading aide for all 24 first-grade classrooms in Lee County, Baldwyn and Nettleton over 10 years beginning with a pilot program in 1977. This was at a time when Mississippi did not yet have public kindergarten classrooms.
“Mr. McLean really had a heart for children and reading,” said Beth Jackson, who taught first grade at Shannon Elementary at that time.
The aide would allow teachers to divide their students into smaller groups to better focus on teaching literacy.
The concept was a new one and emerged from conversations McLean had with Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist famous for his taxonomy analyzing different learning types. McLean traveled to Chicago to meet with Bloom and also brought the educational thinker to Tupelo to speak to teachers.
The goal was for all students to be reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
McLean’s private gift to public education was rare at the time, and it drew national media attention from the New York Times and NBC News, among others.
“This was unprecedented, probably in the country, we would build community support around reading at first grade and the primary level,” said Billy Crews, whom McLean hired to oversee the program and who later served a lengthy tenure as Journal publisher and CEO.
“Who in the country at that time raised money privately to help kids read better? Nobody. If you were giving corporate money, you gave money for college scholarships.”
Its impact was swift. The year before the program began, Lee County first-graders scored in the 23rd percentile in reading on the California Achievement Test. During the program’s pilot year, when most classrooms only had the aide for half of the year, they rose to the 48th percentile.
Private money was raised to expand the program to second grade in 1980, and when the school year ended, second-grade students scored in the 52nd percentile, a 16 percent increase, and first-graders were in the 59th percentile.
“Some teachers were successful in developing meaningful ways to break classrooms into groups and increase time on task,” said Crews, who regularly observed the reading instruction. “I would take the concepts that worked well and share them with others.
“By doing that, I was shining a spotlight on it and saying, what you are doing in first grade is critical to the instructional system.”
Jackson said the program made it easier for teachers to give attention to struggling students.
“We built on student’s strengths and took them where they were,” she said. “Everyone couldn’t fit the same mold, so everyone couldn’t be handed the same thing. That is a lot of hard work for teachers, but that is the key for students to be successful.”
Jackson, who is still in the education field, said they used a lot of multi-sensory techniques then, something she said is now coming back into vogue. They also had a strong phonics program.
The program’s success caught the attention of those trying to improve the state’s educational system during the early 1980s, and it was included in the landmark 1982 Educational Reform Act.
The law put assistant teachers to help with reading in all kindergarten to third-grade classrooms. It never produced the same results seen in Lee County.
“It is always a problem when you take something to scale and you have a much larger audience,” said Cathy Grace, who oversaw the statewide program during its first years as the early childhood coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Education.
The quality of the school’s principal made a big difference in how well the program was executed, Grace said. Some school leaders began using the aides for purposes other than for reading.
“We started to see there was a need for guidance,” she said. “We were not able to monitor how some principals and superintendents let assistant teachers be utilized in schools.
“We had to constantly remind them, these were not substitutes, they were not secretaries, they were not there to put up bulletin boards or to do playground duty.”
Teachers were not familiar with having another adult in their classrooms, and despite training, many of them struggled to use that person effectively, Grace said. The quality of assistant teachers, who were paid less than half as much as a licensed teacher, also varied.
“In many communities, it became an employment thing rather than a teaching thing,” said former State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham. “That was one issue, what kind of qualifications do these people bring?”
Although assistant teachers still exist in Mississippi schools, their numbers have been dramatically reduced by funding cuts through the years. Multiple classrooms often share assistants, and few of them focus specifically on literacy instruction.
The strength of Lee County’s program, Crews said, was that it had clearly defined goals, oversight and accountability.
“We had people in the community saying it was important,” Crews said. “When you go statewide, you lose that.”
The program has had an impact in ideas it has spawned. Former State Superintendent Richard Boyd said some of the things the Barksdale Reading Institute is doing with small-group literacy instruction is similar to concepts from the Reading Aide program. Boyd, who led the state’s education system shortly after the Education Reform Act, held a leadership position at BRI when it first began.
“If you did it like we did it at BRI, which is that assistant means not an aide but an assistant teacher really doing some tutoring, then that could pay dividends,” said Boyd, who noted he began to see the program slipping away as assistants were used for different purposes.
Jackson now works for the Program of Research & Evaluation For Public Schools at Mississippi State University to evaluate schools that have received state dyslexia grants.
“It is ironic that so many activities you see being encouraged for dyslexic students and struggling readers are so many of the same things we said 30 or 40 years ago would work for students,” she said.
“…We really thought it could change Mississippi, and I think if they did it the way Lee County did it, it might have.”