MEET THE... America READS Mississippi

Since 2010, when Ekklesia Church in Hattiesburg first took part in the America Reads Mississippi Program – an initiative through Americorps Mississippi which helps place tutors in local schools – nine full-time reading tutors have been placed throughout the Hattiesburg Public School District, putting in more than 5,500 hours of one-one-one tutoring for more than 139 students.

With the help of donations from individuals and organizations from around the community, officials from the Pinebelt Foundation – which oversees the program in the area – hope to keep expanding the program with the goal of improving third-grade reading test results in the district.

“We at the foundation recognize that the strengths of our public schools are an important factor to every part of our community,” said Michael Dixon, executive director of the Pinebelt Foundation. “It’s important for education, it’s important for economic growth, for attracting new people into town to live and work here.

“The better our public schools do, the better we do as a city, so we just wanted to find some very tangible way that we could make a significant difference. So for a low buy-in for not very much money, we can specifically target students who are struggling in their reading, and then we can make sure they get personalized, trained tutoring to help them turn that corner.”

Under the terms of America Reads Mississippi, Americorps Mississippi provides matching monies to help fund the tutors. For every $6,600 raised by the Pinebelt Foundation, the program will match that amount, provide an educational award and training, and place a full-time reading tutor into the school for the year.

“What studies have found in general is that if students aren’t reading up to grade level by Year 3, there’s a decent chance they’ll never catch up,” Dixon said. “So we’re really trying to do that early intervention, because when students are lagging behind in school, it affects every area in life. And we, as a community, want to see those students succeed.”

After the initial success Ekklesia had with the program, which helped place tutors at Thames Elementary, the program last year was put under the jurisdiction of the Pinebelt Foundation. Since that time, five other churches have joined Ekklesia to help make the program possible: Parkway Heights United Methodist, Grace Temple, Westminster Presbyterian, First Presbyterian, CrossPoint Community and Mt. Olive Baptist.

Currently, the nine tutors are spread out at four different elementary schools throughout the Hattiesburg Public School District: Grace Christian, Hawkins, Thames and Rowan. Each of those schools offers two tutors, with the exception of Thames, which added a third one this year because of its larger student population.

Because of the program, 64 percent of students served have improved at least one grade level or more on school reading assessments. Members also have planned and implemented nine service projects and recruited 115 community volunteers, who have served 103 hours.

“Since partnering with the America Reads program, our students who historically are low-performing in reading are showing significant growth in literacy,” said Heidi Hackbarth, academic coach at Thames Elementary. “Student growth has contributed to student confidence, which has increased student achievement.

“The America Reads tutors are always willing to help with tasks such as participating in student achievement celebrations, campus beautification and classroom support for teachers. The rapport built by the tutors with the students has proven that the benefits are reciprocal, and students are eager to work with the tutors and enjoy their time while improving their reading skills.”

Individuals or organizations that would like to donate to the program can do so by visiting, by calling (601) 583-6180 or dropping by the Pinebelt Foundation office at 1501 Adeline Street, Suite 1 in Hattiesburg. Dixon said the foundation is close to meeting its donation goal for this year, but still has a little ways to go.

“We’ve got a bunch of organizations that are participating right now, and United Way has offered to match up to the first $2,500 from any donor who is chipping in towards it,” he said. “And we have the Mississippi Community Education Center, and a bunch of churches that are adopting schools and chipping in towards the tutors.

“If we got another $7,500 to $10,000 in, then we would be able to cover the tutors for this year and maybe even see a little bit of the account for next year’s tutors. We’ll take one-time gifts, but we’re really looking for annual partners – civic groups, churches, individuals who are willing to commit every year putting a little bit toward it.”