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What is your wish for Mississippi?

From the Ground Up

What is your wish for Mississippi? What one thing would you change if it were possible to have one great gift this Christmas? For me, I wish that every Mississippian could read.

If every Mississippian could read there would probably be less crime. I’m told that the overwhelming majority of prisoners at Parchman are unable to read. If every Mississippian could read the entire workforce in our state would be trainable, with the capacity to be taught how to do things and understand why. If every Mississippian could read more students would dream bigger dreams, set higher goals and yearn to learn even more. Can you imagine what it would be like in your town if everyone were literate?

Unfortunately, we don’t always get what we wish for. The reason our society is so illiterate is because so many of our children are from poor families where the opportunities for reading are almost nonexistent. We are told that Mississippi students perform so poorly on standardized tests because of our demographics. That is why my interest is always perked when I see examples of superior student performance in high poverty areas. I learned of two such cases recently.

Helen DeBerry just completed a seven-year stint as principal of Earhart Elementary in Calumet Heights, a poor inner-city Chicago neighborhood. Eighty-two percent of the students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. The racial makeup of Earhart Elementary is 99% black and 1% Latino. In 1991 the school board voted to close the school because it only had 135 students. No one wanted to come to the school. It didn’t even have a principal; it was a branch of another school located a half-mile away. Branch schools were established after a 1988 ordinance that provided for local school councils, which could hire their own principals and be more independent.

The council hired Helen DeBerry and asked her to establish an Afro-centric school with a concentration in math and science. DeBerry, a reading specialist and assistant principal at another school, found that there was no reading program in the kindergarten and no significant writing across the curriculum. She had the audacity to lay out a five-year plan to make Earhart the best school in Chicago. She set up a program based on reading comprehension, not reading methods, and used literature to put together a program that placed literacy at the center of school life.

An hour and a half every morning was devoted to reading. She canceled all physical education, art, music, and library hours so that everybody could help with the program. The teachers were given sufficient training to teach the children to read. Literature was emphasized in all subjects. Grammar and essay writing lead to research writing by the second grade. Students made monthly oral presentations. Last years’ sixth grade was reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” while another class was writing its own play based on “Amistad.”

Let the results speak. Between 1991 and 1998, the percentage of children in the entire school scoring at or above the national average soared 52 points in reading and 46 points in math. During the same period, the sixth grade national percentile ranking went from 40th to 78th in reading and from 27th to 85th in math. School enrollment doubled.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, New York they’re talking about Irwin Kurz, principal of The Crown School, which is a non-public school, but has a student population similar in race and income to Earhart. When Kurz arrived 13 years ago, scores were in the bottom quartile of District 17 in Brooklyn. Today, they are the best in the district and rank 40th out of 674 elementary schools in New York City. In 1996, he added a selective middle school concentrating on law and journalism. Now the 6th grade has the second highest reading scores in the city. Together, the 6th, 7th and 8th grades this year scored in the 93rd percentile in reading and the 96th in math.

“It’s a lot of garbage that poor kids can’t succeed,” say Kurz.

In Mississippi we hear a lot about children not able to read when they come to school. Kurz believes that children who don’t succeed in the early years are quick to believe that they are not equipped for school. That is why he established literacy in kindergarten as a hallmark of his program. Kindergartners who can read and older students who write five book reports a year get to become members of the Principal’s Reading Club. Books are “the buzz” at Crown.

These are just two examples of principals whose high poverty students are high performing students. In both cases, reading is the foundation of their success. It appears that reading, especially early reading, can be the key difference in a student’s life.

The information in this column was discovered at a place on the Internet known as the No Excuses Campaign (www.noexcuses.org). Also on the site is a section titled Seven Common Elements of High-Performing High-Poverty Schools. Contact the No Excuses Campaign, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002-4999, phone (202) 608-6205.

Merry Christmas everyone! Now go read a good book.

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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