All Hands on Deck: Showing Up for Childhood Literacy in Mississippi | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

All Hands on Deck: Showing Up for Childhood Literacy in Mississippi

North Jackson Rotary Club Member and “Between the Lions” coordinator Jenny Price (back) reads to kids at Walton Elementary School for the project. Photo courtesy Clinton Smith

North Jackson Rotary Club Member and “Between the Lions” coordinator Jenny Price (back) reads to kids at Walton Elementary School for the project. Photo courtesy Clinton Smith

"Ciss-cross, apple sauce. I said criss-cross, apple sauce. What part of that do you not understand?" Like a symphony conductor, Angela Sandifer deftly had her pre-K class of 18 African American children quickly sit in their designated squares on the classroom floor, cross their legs and put their hands over their mouths so they couldn't talk.

"Randall, you go stand in the corner. Dr. Smith is here to read to you, and we need to show him some respect," she said.

Poor Randall. It was my fault, not his. I had snuck into the back of the room while the kids were gyrating to a tune on the "Between the Lions" video, and was doing the Twist with them. They thought an old white man doing the Twist was great fun. But the music slowly faded, and the children took their places and crossed their legs.

"Good morning, everybody."

"Good morning, Dr. Smith."

"Does everybody remember the pledge we took last week?"

I knew that they would.

"Yes," in unison. "Dr. Smith, I can be anything that I want to be. Amen."

Then I picked up a book that Angela had given me, and began to read. I felt two hands tapping on my knee.

"I can't see the pictures."

So I held the book higher, and craned my neck to read while I held it to the side. About every three minutes, I stopped to ask the students if they knew the meaning of a word.

"What does 'family' mean?"

All hands reached for the ceiling, and I pointed to Cecelia.

"Family means who you live with," she told the class.

Raising My Hand

What was I doing on this frosty morning at Walton Elementary School on Bailey Avenue reading to this class of exuberant children? The short answer is that I raised my hand to volunteer and become part of this family.

The longer answer is that someone had decided to try to do something about an ugly problem: Almost two-thirds of American children cannot read proficiently at the beginning of the fourth grade, the benchmark used in most public schools. That means that those children are unable to interpret and apply what they read.

WGBH, the Public Broadcasting System affiliate in Boston, had conceived of a one-hour weekday video series featuring a family of cartoon lions living in a library filled with musical and adventurous books. The lions' friends introduced new words and sounds to children. Benefits of learning to read were dramatized, using well-grounded principles of early education.

In 2000, Mississippi Public Broadcasting stepped up to organize and oversee volunteers from selected Rotary Clubs in Jackson to read regularly to children in pre-K classes with the Barksdale Reading Institute providing leadership and funding. Clubs also agreed to purchase video equipment and books for participating pre-K classes. The program launched that year in Rotary District 6820, which includes Jackson, and ran continuously until 2011.

MPB also hired and paid salaries of classroom monitors who assisted teachers in showing the videos and selecting books. Rotarians agreed to provide money for an annual Thanksgiving party, where they would meet the children's parents.

So that's why I was in the classroom at the Walton School. I am a member of the North Jackson Rotary Club, and I had volunteered to make sure that Rotarians read to the kids three times a week.

Since I had practiced pediatrics before retirement, I was especially aware of the importance of reading to children from birth. Mississippi pediatricians participate in "Reach Out and Read," which Batson Children's Hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center facilitates. Parents receive donated books at the time of clinic visits to encourage them to turn the television off, and instead sit and read to their children.

But I volunteered for a more compelling reason that began with my own life in elementary school.

'Colored School': Near But Unequal

I lived with my parents and younger brother on the south side of Jackson, and attended the Byram Consolidated school. I took the same yellow school bus every morning to school and rode the same one home. It was Number 57, and the driver was Jimmy Applewhite, a high-school student. The bus picked me up and let me off in front of my house.

In the first grade I learned the alphabet, how to print my name and how to count. It was easy. I could read well by the second grade, and in the third grade Mrs. Davis let me help some children who were slow readers.

The school was made of bricks, had water fountains in the halls, clean indoor toilets and a cafeteria where we eagerly went for a hot meal every day.

We boys played football at recess, built forts out of sticks, and played army and cowboys. In the fifth grade, I played football for the Pee Wee team.

About a mile down Highway 51 from my house toward Byram, our bus passed Caney Creek School. It sat on a hill about 100 yards from the highway. To get to the front door, you had to go down a narrow dirt road filled with ruts, cross a muddy place at the bottom, then go up a little hill. The unpainted school had several windows; I could usually see people inside. Some old cars lay rusting in the front and side yards. An outdoor toilet stood on each side of the school building. "Girls" was painted on the door of one and "Boys" on the other.

Jimmy told us this was the "colored school."

I passed that school every school day for six years, but never had a meaningful conversation with my parents or anyone else about the children who went to school there. It was simply a fact of life.

It did not occur to me whether they were getting a good education. They surely had no football team. No cafeteria. No indoor plumbing. No water fountains in the hallway. I was unaware. But I have never forgotten that school.

Only years later did I realize that education for black children was not only neglected in most of Mississippi: It was actively suppressed. Our white society was unaware of the consequences of denying good education to all its children—consequences that can affect generations of children.

In his well-researched and excellent book, "Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow" (University of Illinois Press, 1989), Neil McMillen details the reasons why the Caney Creek School was not at all an exception in Mississippi.

Most white people, prompted by state government leaders, considered education of black children a waste of time because, for one thing, no jobs were waiting for them when they finished school. More compelling was the fear of the white majority that education of black people would enable them to vote, and thereby threaten the status quo that they had long enjoyed.

While physical facilities in urban communities such as Jackson, Meridian, Vicksburg and Hattiesburg included brick and mortar at the time that I was in elementary school, the vast majority of rural black schools could hardly be called schools.

"A great many," a former state superintendent of education told McMillen, "were four blank, unpainted walls, a few old rickety benches, an old stove propped up on brickbats, and two or three boards nailed together and painted black for a black board."

More than 90 percent had no outhouses. When there were erasers, maps, pictures, chalk or even fuel, they were supplied privately. A black schoolmaster told McMillen that a typical rural school was "little better than teaching out of doors. When it rained the water not only came through the top, but through the sides as well." He may have been dry, but his pupils were not. "The little fellows would be standing in the water below like little ducks. ... Many of them were not protected with overshoes or any shoes, but they came to school each day much as if they had been properly clad," the schoolmaster said.

McMillen documents the historic disparities in per-pupil expenditures by the State of Mississippi. In 1913-1914 $8.20 went to white children and $1.53 to black. By 1949-1950, expenditures were $122.93 for white children and $32.55 for black students.

The plight of Mississippi's black children did not go unnoticed outside the state. The Rosenwald Foundation, founded by New York businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and black educator Booker T. Washington, provided matching funds for the construction of school buildings in the southern states for black children. School boards had to agree to operate and maintain the segregated schools.

But private donations had to provide much of the match, which amounted to a "second tax," as black people had already paid taxes to the state to support schools. In many, if not most cases, their tax money was diverted to support white schooling.

Whites less resented initiatives by the Jeanes Fund, also known as the "Negro Rural School Fund." Founded by Quaker Anna T. Jeanes, monies were made available in the southern states to train African American teachers, because so many had only minimal education in the inadequate system. By 1952, there were more than 500 of them in the South.

'Information Sponges'

Today's Mississippi does not suffer from the same school segregation required by law—that officially ended in early 1970—but many majority-black public schools still suffer from inequitable funding issues. And the children within their walls are products of earlier discrimination against their parents and grandparents including under-funded schools that often educated them more poorly than their white counterparts, putting them on an unequal path from an early age.

That means that the children participating in the "Between the Lions" program may have parents who cannot read well, or maybe cannot read at all.

Has the effort been successful? Maybe. Evaluating outcomes in pre-school children is fraught with bias. Each student takes a "Between the Lions" test before the school year begins, consisting of letter recognition, distinguishing between letters and numbers, and especially recognizing "phonemes," sounds at the beginning of a word, such as "k" or "b." The same test is administered at the end of the school year, and scores compared. The result is invariably significant improvement.

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Kids in a private daycare, some of whom participated in “Between the Lions,” perform a concert for their parents. Photo courtesy Clinton Smith

But the true value of the effort may go beyond test scores to the intangibles. Does a child learn to be comfortable in a classroom setting? Does classroom discipline help channel the chaotic world of the pre-schooler into productive thinking? Is the teacher reassured that people in the community care about the education of all of the children? Does participation sharpen awareness of low literacy rates among Mississippi children? Would the volunteer have the opportunity to mingle with black pre-schoolers in any other aspect of his or her life?

I asked two fellow Rotarians who have served as readers for two years why they volunteered for the program.

After retiring from a career in engineering, Bill Osborne was property director of Habitat for Humanity in Jackson for more than 12 years. He told me that he had met many low-income families and children, primarily black, and was aware of the challenges they faced.

"Quite simply," he said, "reading is fundamental to learning and life." He has found the children to be "information sponges," able to recall far more than he would have thought possible.

He will readily volunteer for the next year, he told me.

Lee Jenkins is the CEO of the Brain Injury Association of Mississippi, and has witnessed the tragic circumstances and outcomes of brain-injured people. She also taught in the Junior Achievement Program for 10 years, primarily at Peeples Middle School in south Jackson.

Jenkins recalls the metal detectors and armed guards at the school, and how she had to patiently explain why she drove a Mercedes-Benz to school. But she requested Peeples "because they needed me the most."

"I went to Jackson Prep a couple of times and felt that every student there wanted to show me he was smarter than me," Jenkins told me. "So I knew a little about the landscape and what to expect in the reading program."

Has the experience changed her in any way?

"No, I don't think so. Maybe in one way: I think every person in our Rotary Club should visit the class at least once. So many people are frightened at the school's location and about the predominance of black kids there," Jenkins said. It would do them good to see how some disadvantaged kids live. As a matter of fact, I'm going to suspend my participation in 'Between the Lions' this year. I'm chair of the Membership Committee. It's time for somebody else to have the experience

'Service Above Self'

Attorney Paul Harris founded the first Rotary Club in 1905 in Chicago, along with three of his friends.

The civic organization, often with top community leaders as members, rapidly spread across the United States, and soon became international in scope. Most Rotary Clubs meet weekly, and until recently, members were required to make up missed meetings. Rotary admitted its first female members in the 1990s.

The four guiding principles of Rotary are: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? The motto is "Service above self. He profits most who serves best." Many clubs now say "One profits" instead, however.

Each club has its own meeting times and service projects, just as do other service organizations, such as Lions, Kiwanis and Exchange clubs. A portion of the dues goes to the Rotary Foundation, which serves as a resource for clubs, including a monthly magazine, and coordinates funding for its chief project since 1988: "eradication of polio from the face of the earth."

This may have seemed like an undoable project for some at the time, with more than 350,000 cases of polio a year worldwide. But because of partnerships with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only a handful of cases were reported last year and even fewer so far in 2017.

India was declared polio-free in 2016. Only Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria continue to report cases.

Rotarians do not say so often, but most are probably attracted to the organization because it does good in the world without the cloak of religion. A "Between the Lions" project can work in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cameroon and beyond.

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A class of Jackson pre-K kids who had participated in the “Between the Lions” program graduate in 2014. Photo courtesy Clinton Smith

As with the goal of eliminating polio, educating children stuck in generations of poverty and societal neglect can seem daunting. But it really just takes showing up—again and again.

At the end of that reading session to the kids at Walton Elementary, I once again asked my closing question: "OK, who knows what time it is?"

"Exercise!" they yelled in unison.

So the children and I spent a final two minutes doing jumping jacks, deep knee bends, toe touches, marching in place and their favorite, push-ups. The children always wanted a hug or a high-five when I left, and I wanted the same.

Dr. Clinton Smith is a retired pediatrician in Jackson, a member of the North Jackson Rotary Club and a Provine High School graduate. This is his first cover story for the Jackson Free Press.

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