Million investment in kids

A $100

Ex-Netscape CEO propels Mississippi toward reading goals

May 24, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

JACKSON, Miss. - By the second grade, James L. Barksdale was a failing reader. His anxious parents hired a tutor who attacked the problem the old-fashioned way - with flash cards and repetition.

He learned to read "all at once," Barksdale remembers, and 50 years later he's come to the aid of children in his home state who are similarly at risk of failure.

In a move that astonished many, the former chief of Netscape Communications Corp. and his wife, Sally, in January donated $100 million to improve reading in Mississippi.

That's a tall order in a state that has consistently lagged behind the rest of the nation, despite several reform efforts.

Thanks in large part to federal aid, Mississippi schools have discovered the Internet and can afford the basics, but many still pay beginning teachers in the low $20,000 range, and many school buildings are badly in need of repair and maintenance.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have scraped bottom for years, and about a third of Mississippians older than 16 can't read a street map, according to U.S. government statistics.

But Mississippi is embarking on the experiment with an approach educators say - and the Barksdales agree - is grounded in solid research rather than passing fads. They say it will feature a combination of careful, systematic classroom teaching and reform of teacher education statewide.

The goal: Every Mississippi child will leave third grade knowing how to read well.

The Barksdales insist their offering - derived in part from the $700 million profit they took last year when Internet giant America Online Inc. bought Netscape - is an investment, not a gift. Investments must work, Jim Barksdale says. Gifts are squandered.

"Why don't most people invest in programs like this?" asks Barksdale, 57. "They think they don't pay off. You've got to wait 20 years for the little kids to grow up."

In making the commitment, the Barksdales joined a growing club of education philanthropists, many of them enjoying huge windfalls in high-technology ventures.

Bill Gates, the world's richest man, with his wife, Melinda, has pledged $350 million to improve schools and aid minority students. Former publisher and ambassador Walter Annenberg is spending $500 million, mostly in the nation's nine largest cities.

But only the Barksdales (93rd most wealthy last year in the Forbes magazine survey) focused on one state. Only they concentrated exclusively on literacy.

"This is what I call venture philanthropy," says Robert A. Kronley, senior consultant to the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta monitor of civil rights issues.

"It stretches the limits of traditional philanthropy in very positive ways. The question is will it be enough? Will it have enough pull?"

The Barksdale grant is technically to the University of Mississippi; the Barksdale Reading Institute is up and running on the leafy Ole Miss campus in Oxford. But all eight public teacher training colleges and the state Department of Education are deeply involved.

"A major benefit here is that it's a major gift to a university, but it's tied to the improvement of public schools," says Mark D. Musick, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, a compact of 17 Southern and border states. "That's not the case with most big gifts to universities."

The Barksdales' initial commitment is for five years.

"If at the end of five years there's significant progress, it will be funded forever," says Sally Barksdale, 56, who married her college sweetheart after they graduated from Ole Miss. "If not, the money not spent will go for another program. But we're not worried."

The Barksdales and Mississippi educators say reform this time will be different.

They've been studying the latest research in reading, particularly well-respected studies from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and they've put some of those findings to work successfully in a pilot program at six of Mississippi's high-poverty schools.

One of those schools is South Delta Elementary in Rolling Fork, a Delta town mired in poverty northwest of Jackson.

"Forty-five miles from nowhere in either direction," in the words of Associate Superintendent Katherine Tankson, Rolling Fork shows the effects of the lack of jobs in agriculture, primarily cotton. Unemployment exceeds 21 percent, and downtown stores are closed, paint peeling under a hot spring sun.

At the school, the staff has done the best it could, and state and federal grants have helped.

"Fifteen years ago we ran off worksheets, wrote on the board, shared an overhead," says Beverly Wilson, the South Delta principal.

Today there are five or six computers in every classroom, all connected to the Internet. "Smart carts" with camcorders, printers and other high-tech gadgets are wheeled from room to room.

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