OXFORD, Miss. — The Lafayette, Oxford and University of Mississippi (LOU) community is now one of 27 places across the nation designated as an All-America City Finalist by the National Civic League and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national organization dedicated to improving reading proficiency among low income children.
The finalists were honored at the campaign’s national awards ceremony in Denver in June. Additionally, 15 other cities across the nation were named All American Cities an honor that will be awarded again in 2020.
LOU’s designation is the result of hard work from multiple local leaders within the LOU Reads Coalition, a collaboration of multiple entities established in 2015 working to improve outcomes for low income children in four areas: grade-level reading (measure of outcomes), school readiness (measure of preparedness), school attendance and summer learning opportunities.
“Literacy is a measure of a community’s prosperity,” said Suzanne Ryals, the new LOU director of early childhood and reading development and leader of LOU Reads. “We have a lot of great resources and through LOU Reads, we are no longer working in isolation.”
Ryals, formerly the principal at Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford, attributes LOU’s success to the good work of several local educators and community leaders. In her new role, she hopes to help stakeholders improve literacy outcomes for children via data collection, assessment as well as continued parent engagement and workforce development.
The LOU community has some hard numbers to back up its recent honor.
According to data from the Mississippi Department of Education, the number of children in the Oxford School District who have the reading skills needed to start kindergarten has risen from 29 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2016.
Currently, 95 percent of local children are reading proficiently by the third grade.
“I think there is a lot to be learned from the LOU community,” said Ashley Parker Sheils, director of the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which works with nine affiliated communities across the state. “The LOU community has really brought people together and formed powerful subgroups around all four of the campaign focus areas.”
One example of the LOU community meeting the grade-level reading challenge can be seen in the attendance category. LOU Reads leaders have built relationships with local parents through outreach programs like “Breakfast at the Bus Stop,” a program where LOU leaders bring breakfast foods to children and parents in the morning to discuss chronic absenteeism at local bus stop locations.
By building relationships and community partnerships, the impact for children has been a positive one: 47 percent of local second-grade students missed 10 or more days in 2011-2015 and this number was reduced to 17 percent in 2016, according to locally collected data.
“(LOU Reads) has definitely moved the needle for outcomes for children in our community,” said Angela Rutherford, director of UM’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction (CELI), one of multiple UM entities that is part of the organization. “We want to do whatever we can to support LOU Reads’ goal of increasing literacy achievement. In 2020, we want to be an All American City.”
UM organizations that are members of LOU Reads include: CELI, College Corps, Dr. Maxine Harper Center for Educational Research and Evaluation, Horizons, Jumpstart and the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement.
Other community member organizations include: Boys & Girls Club of North Mississippi, Excel by 5, Lafayette County Literacy Council, Lafayette Country School District, Lafayette County & Oxford Public Library, Leap Frog, LOU-Home, North Mississippi VISTA Project, Oxford Park Commission, Oxford School District, Oxford University School, United Way of Oxford and the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.
“This is a community that values literacy and values its children and is actively working to provide the best opportunities it can for its youngest members,” said Ryals.
By Andrew M. Abernathy