Director of the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Ashley Sheils speaks about the campaign's efforts at the State Capitol on Tuesday. Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

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A statewide effort to encourage businesses, faith-based organizations and nonprofits to work together to strengthen children’s literacy skills was announced Tuesday by education advocates and public officials.

The announcement comes as 3rd graders across the state prepare for this year’s reading test, which they must pass to continue to 4th grade.

Ashley Sheils, a former literacy specialist and coach, was named director of the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. She will provide technical assistance to communities hoping to create a partnership with the new effort. Currently, only Oxford/Lafayette County and Gulfport have a partnership, but officials say they have seen good results.

“We know that not all students have access to high-quality preschool programs and they need additional support between Kindergarten and 3rd grade,” said Dr. Angela Rutherford, director of the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction at the University of Mississippi. “Participating communities will have easy access to the national campaign and the proven and promising models, programs and strategies that have worked for students.”

There are 285 communities nationwide that participate in the campaign, according to Ron Fairchild of The Campaign for Grade Level Reading. Of those 285, 94 have seen progress in at least one of the campaign’s three targeted areas: school readiness, attendance and summer learning. Those areas make up what is considered an important predictor of school success and high school graduation: grade-level reading by the end of 3rd grade.

“We have three focus areas,” Sheils said. “School readiness — we want children to come to school more prepared. School attendance — or ensuring barriers to attendance in communities are addressed and hopefully remedied. Summer learning — or providing high-quality learning opportunities outside of school.”

“This shared vision, the use of data and the collective effort are important pieces to help these communities be successful in their campaign efforts,.” Shiels added.

Sheils said there will be a concentrated effort to target low-income communities, and that she has already had preliminary conversations with Clarksdale and Jackson school officials about joining the program.

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he believes the local approach will work.

“They look at evidence-based programs that work and move the needle. Too many times we have silos trying to work with children and don’t get the job done because it’s not evidence-based,” Tollison said.

The campaign’s goal is to have 10 Mississippi community participants by the end of 2017.

Members of the Mississippi Association of Grantmakers came together to raise funds for communities. The Phil Hardin Foundation first donated $50,000, asking that $25,000 of that be matched. Currently, $75,000 has been raised, and Sammy Moon, coordinator for the association, said the goal is to reach between $100,000 to $125,000 in donations.

The Mississippi Department of Education is also providing funding for the campaign.

“This is an effort to get grassroots community support for literacy. Helping students read on grade level is not just a school responsibility. It takes everyone working together to ensure student success,” said Kim Benton, the Education Department’s chief academic officer.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.