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State plans $1.47 million in grants to help 34 Miss. schools meet third-grade literacy mandate

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JACKSON, Mississippi — With thousands of Mississippi third-graders at risk of flunking this year because they can't read at a basic level, State Board of Education members are likely to vote Friday to award $1.47 million in grants to help 34 public schools meet the reading requirements.

The Legislature mandated that all third graders must read at a basic level by this year or be flunked. Last year, about 6,500 of Mississippi's 37,000 third graders scored "minimal" on state standardized tests.

The state is already providing reading coaches to 87 low-scoring schools to help improve teaching methods. It's using the $15 million that lawmakers appropriated to improve instruction in advance of the third-grade mandate. The grants to be discussed Friday would come from that $15 million.

In a Thursday work session, some board members voiced concerns the state still isn't doing enough to reach all of the roughly 425 schools with students in grades K-3 statewide. The state has faced obstacles hiring as many coaches as Alabama and Florida, which have undertaken similar reading improvement efforts. Both those states have spent substantially more per student than Mississippi, aiming to provide a coach for each elementary school.

"It looks like to me we're just helping a smattering of kids," said state board member Bill Jones of Petal.

School districts applied for the grants last fall.

Schools that get coaches from the state are eligible for up to $25,000 in grants, while schools that currently don't get coaches were eligible for up to $50,000.

Under the state's A-to-F grading system, most of the schools getting money are rated B, C, or D.

"Even in high-performing schools, there are students that need support," said Nathan Oakley, state director of curriculum and instruction.

The grants will be for the last six months of the current budget years, but Oakley said the department intends to renew them for the following two years, assuming funds are available.

The schools getting money can hire their own coaches or hire teachers to tutor struggling readers. They can also pay for supplies, teacher training, after-school programs or summer school.

Pascagoula Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich said the Gautier and College Park elementary schools in his district will use the money in part to pay for planned summer schools, where students who fail the standardized reading test can get extra instruction and possibly be sent on to fourth grade on time in the fall. Rodolfich said about 120 of Pascagoula's more than 600 third-graders appear to be at risk of flunking, adding he and others went door-to-door to meet with parents in addition to sending state-mandated warning letters.

Pearl Superintendent Raymond Morgigno said his district will use the money to hire a part-time literacy coach and help pay for summer school. He estimates about 40 of the district's more than 300 third-graders are at risk.


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