Curbing Illiteracy in the Rural South—Why a New Program Just Might Work

Save the Children is taking steps to break the cycle of illiteracy by reaching out to underserved kids across the Mississippi River Delta.

More teacher training, books, and computers will help children in Southern states learn to read. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Every bit of aid helps in the impoverished Mississippi River Delta.

The Delta, called "The Most Southern Place on Earth," is one of the poorest areas in the United States, yet also one of the country’s richest cultural regions. A bevy of unflattering statistics, especially for states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, also haunt this lush land of magnolia and moonlight.

Literacy is one area where the Delta often fails.

According to the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), approximately 40 percent of adults do not read well enough to fill out an application or read a food label in the Mississippi River Delta. Such low literacy rates brew a cesspool of problems, from low graduation rates to unemployment and health issues. In fact, many people in this region can’t even read medical instructions.

More: Mississippi Is Often Ranked Last in Education. Will the Governor's Plan for Radical Change Work?

A concerted effort exists to curb illiteracy in this region, especially with the DRA, a federal-state partnership, which is congressionally mandated to identify and provide economic development investments to the 252 counties and parishes of the Delta.

Save the Children—an organization that creates lasting change in children's lives in the United States and abroad—has given a $200,000 commitment to extend a current $500,000 partnership with the Delta Regional Authority. The partnership helps 30 school-based literacy programs in rural areas of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.

“This is an evidence-based program,” DRA Chairman Masingill said in an interview. “We want to expand it across regions and states. With this program, we have seen that 67 percent of students showed significant reading improvement and that’s equal to an addition 4.5 months of schooling.”

About 3,000 students are already involved in the program in six out of the eight DRA states.

This new grant will allow for high-level skills training for 180 program employees and at least 180 teachers; books and computers to 30 Save the Children programs; and after-school programming at no charge for families living in poverty.

Such initiatives between nonprofits and government are crucial, especially as budgets continue to decrease across the board for rural programs, says Judy Cheatham, vice president of Literacy Services for Reading Is Fundamental.

“Children in rural areas face obstacles that are not seen in other areas,” Cheatham said. “They may want to go to the library, but in many rural areas, there are no libraries. So many classrooms don’t have class libraries. Funding has been slashed for school libraries and media centers. How are these children supposed to get access to books?”

Rural schools often have to take field trips to libraries, but such trips are few and far between because of travel and cost.

If we can increase reading achievement and develop reading skills with the tools they are given, it can have billions of dollars of impact on this region.

The Save the Children and DRA partnership has a goal of students reading an average of 25 books a month. Such books include The Story of Ruby Bridges and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, followed by testing for comprehension. The program is centered on kindergarten through sixth grade but some middle schools also have programming, says Amy Fecher, Arkansas state director for Save The Children.

“Investing in our future generations is critical to building a pipeline of skilled young people prepared to be the future workforce in the Delta,” Masingill says. “You’ve got to get to young people early.”

If not, he says, the next generation entrenched in poverty will suffer the same fate as the one before it—creating a vicious cycle. One in six Americans lives in poverty. That’s worse in rural areas, Masingill says, and as a result it impacts local economy development.

“If we can increase reading achievement and develop reading skills with the tools they are given, it can have billions of dollars of impact on this region,” he says.

Cheatham says that in poor places like the Delta, the importance of reading cannot be underestimated.

“Many Southern states are statistically flat in reading,” Cheatham says. “So many parents can’t even read or comprehend the importance of reading, so the earlier you can get a book in a child’s hands, the better.”

What do you feel needs to be done to increase literacy rates in the U.S.?

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