PERRY COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - A new grant from the U.S. Department of Education to implement programs throughout the district and the community to improve literacy.
The Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant provides about $380,000 in funding for two years for the district to implement programs to engage residents with reading.
"There's a lot of different things we're going to be doing with our funds," said Jasmine Smith, director of curriculum and federal programs for the Perry County School District. "There's a big, heavy emphasis on the little free library, so we're going to put some little libraries around Perry County. There's also a heavy emphasis on family literacy type programs, community-wide reading initiatives and just outreach for literacy in general."
Smith said the grant is for rural communities and also focuses on literacy for the district's littlest learners.
"There's a heavy emphasis on pre-k, so we're going to be working with our local childcare providers and Head Start centers to provide curriculum and books and different things like that concerning literacy and reading," Smith said.
While the district scored a C in the latest round of Mississippi Department of Education accountability data, only 29.3 percent of students tested as proficient in reading.
"They need to know that reading is important," said Mandy Brown, librarian at Perry Central High School. "Without reading, you can't fill out a job application. You can't, you can't really do anything."
Smith said, "Reading and literacy, just the focus on it in general, is so important because when kids are little, they learn how to read, and then as you progress through school, you have to read to learn."
Students did show improvement in reading despite the low proficiency percentage. 61.6 percent of all student showed growth in reading and the bottom 25 percent of students saw a 73 percent improvement in reading proficiency. Smith also said the district was impressed by how well students performed on third grade reading tests.
"We scored with some of the more prominent districts in the area," Smith said. "To see Perry County in the same line with Petal and Lamar County, it made me feel really good at the progress that we've made in our district."
Smith hopes this grant will help continue that progress and help the district bounce back from losing after school programs because of state budget cuts.
"It's going to be great because we were one of the school districts that was affected by the loss of 21st Century funds," Smith said. "We were doing some really great things partnering with two other districts in our area, with Richton and Forrest County Schools with Earl Travillion. We were doing robotics and doing some really great things with those 21st Century funds, and the loss of those funds was just, it was heartbreaking. There was a $19 million dollar shortfall, and as a result of that, a lot of after school programs were cut. We're going to use these funds to do a reading club after school, so it's going to kind of pick up where 21st Century left off so to speak on a much, much smaller, scale. 21st Century was like $500,000."
Along with the reading club, Smith said the funds will allow the district to offer speech and debate and forensics at Perry Central High School.
"Small, rural districts like ours, we can't really afford to always hire someone to teach those courses, so in partnership with our area universities, we're going to be able to provide some really great activities in art and speech and debate for our students at the high school," Smith said.
The grant also comes after all public libraries in the county closed because of county budget cuts, so Brown and Smith hope this grant can fund programs to keep reading fun.
"Provide things that they do like, not just things from the curriculum," Brown said. "There needs to be a balance."
Smith said, "It's so important for kids to learn a love of reading because if they learn that at an early age then they struggle less in school."
Smith said the money will also go, of course, toward updating print and online materials and e-books in schools through out the district.