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Barbershops and eye exams: How Mississippi is helping kids read

• ExcelinEd

September marks National Literacy Month! Today’s post is by Dr. Kim Benton, Chief Academic Officer at the Mississippi Department of Education, sharing how Mississippi focuses on student literacy throughout the school year and during the summer months.

For many students, the summer break means a break from learning.  And hitting the pause button can be damaging.

Children ReadingDuring summer break, learning gains from the previous year can begin to fade for certain students, putting them at a disadvantage when they rejoin their classmates in the fall. This “summer slide” harms students and contributes significantly to learning achievement gaps.

There’s a lot at stake if a child’s learning momentum dwindles over the summer, especially for students just developing fundamental reading skills. Studies show that if students can’t read by grade level by the end of third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of school.

In Mississippi, we’re committed to promoting reading over the summer months and throughout the school year.

The state’s year-round campaign, Strong Readers = Strong Leaders, promotes literacy throughout all stages of a child’s education by equipping families, students and educators with resources to develop reading skills at school and at home. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant joined the Strong Readers = Strong Leaders effort by filming a PSA focused on the importance of reading throughout the year. The campaign includes the website,, where parents and children can find reading resources throughout the year.

This year, the Strong Readers = Strong Leaders partnered with Mississippi libraries in the 2015 Summer Reading Program to reach children in every community across the state. Every library in Mississippi participated in the program, which centered on the theme “Every Hero Has a Story to Tell.” Local libraries around the state held various reading events for children throughout the summer. More than 46,000 K-12 students registered to participate in these programs, checking out more than 650,000 items from their local libraries.

In addition to this statewide initiative, local communities and school districts led their own programs, including:

  • SummerSALT in Tupelo: A local church, The Orchard, hosted a summer reading program that served nearly 115 students, ranging from rising kindergarteners through third graders. The program named SALT (Studying and Learning Together) used contributions from local businesses to hire the teachers and assistant teachers to work with students.
  • Books in the Barbershop: The Jackson Council Parent Teacher Association coordinated this initiative to help enhance reading skills and male engagement in one of Mississippi’s largest school districts, Jackson Public Schools. Free books and other reading resources were provided at metro area barbershops as a way to attract boys to reading while inviting men to become more engaged in education. Literacy coaches from the school district provided barbers with strategies to help young readers. The program launched at the start of the summer with 19 barbershops joining the pilot program. Plans are in the works to expand the program until 90 percent of barbers in Mississippi’s capital city are participating.
  • Clinton Public Schools: Before the summer break, the district conducted a community-wide children’s book drive. Books collected were sorted by reading level and given away to K-5 students at the end of the school year to read over the summer. More than 25,000 books have been distributed in the past five years.
  • Corinth Public School District:Reading has become a community project through the assistance of a $349,000 Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant. The program, called Project REACH (Reading Expands a Community’s Horizons), sets a community goal of reading 100,000 books by May 2016. Project REACH also provides parent resources, training sessions and family literacy nights.
  • Free Eye Exams to Third Graders: The Mississippi Optometric Association and the Mississippi Vision Foundation provided free eye exams to Mississippi third-grade students with no insurance coverage who did not pass the reading test that determined promotion to fourth-grade. Students whose eye test revealed the need for corrective lenses were provided glasses.

Learning to read by the end of third grade is a critical step toward lifelong learning. Mississippi is dedicated to offering our youngest citizens every chance for success in life, and that begins with literacy. I am proud of this work, and look forward to seeing its benefits for years to come.

Dr. Kim Benton, Chief Academic Officer, Mississippi Department of Education

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