A Tale of Two Schools Bearden Elementary Walton Elementary
The Documentary The Challenge Get Involved
Meet the PeopleWhere Are They Now?
Q and A with Jim Barksdale, Founder of the Barksdale Reading Institute

In January 2000, Jim Barksdale and his wife, Sally, pledged $100 million to help children learn to read in Mississippi, their home state. Barksdale is the former COO of FedEx and former CEO of Netscape. The Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI) aims to change the way struggling schools are teaching reading through the Mississippi Reading Reform Model. BRI delivers ongoing training to teachers, provides classroom materials, funds parent/family literacy centers, and supports early literacy development.

Bearden Elementary, featured in A Tale of Two Schools, received $200,000 from BRI for the 2000-2001 school year.


Q: How widespread is illiteracy in America?

JB: This is a national problem. Forty-four million Americans are functionally illiterate. That's 22 percent of our adult population. That is a sin in a country that's this rich. In most industrialized countries now, they have a zero illiteracy rate. I mean, what's going on here? Reading is the key to an educated person; an educated person is the key to improving society.

Q: What was the genesis of the Barksdale Reading Institute?

JB: I had gotten involved in a major initiative in California as the co-chair of a technology network, which is made up of approximately 300 CEOs from high tech companies in America. Our biggest problem, the thing holding the industry back the most, is the lack of qualified workers; and the problem holding that back is America's public school system. We're just not feeding the industry.

So that then led to my involvement in public education projects in California and other places, involvement in public education initiatives, propositions in California, as well as at the federal level in national testing. And we ran across a project called “Success for All” out of Baltimore that we were very fascinated by because it seemed to prove the point that if you focused money, time, and energy on a specific school, you could actually improve reading scores.

Q: What made you decide to grant such a large sum of money towards teaching children how to read?

JB: In appreciating how important reading is, if you're going to do something, that seemed like one of those things you could do that would make a significant long-term difference, you know. If you want to feed a child for a day, you give him a fish. If you want to feed him for life, you teach him how to fish. And we sensed that, and we know a lot of people in the field who have persuaded us how important this is. It wasn't just our idea. But it certainly did resonate with us.

Q: How did you determine to donate $100,000,000?

JB: When they presented the first budget for the Mississippi Reading Reform model to us, the annual budget, we were struggling with what it was going to cost and how we were going to do it. Sally and I looked at the budget and went through it all, and Sally turned to [State Superintendent] Richard [Thompson] and his people and said, "Now, if you really want to do it right, how much would you spend?" Well, the fact is I doubt anybody in public education has ever been asked that question in America. They're always saying how do you cut more out. And it exploded their imagination, and they added some more. It wasn't a whole lot more, but they did add some more to it to make it really well done, and give it the best chance for success, and that's what we then agreed to fund.

Q: What are your goals for the initiative?

JB: The goal is that every child, at the end of third grade, will be reading at proficiency. I think it's probably not correct to say that every child will be, but that is our goal. If we keep that focus, I'm a big believer that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. So whatever they say to us about what's going on here or there, our question is always, “But are the children learning to read?” And we want to just stay focused on that.

Q: What’s next? Do you have any other plans or hopes for the future?

JB: I’d like to expand the reading program to other areas. When I worked at FedEx I learned that everything has a system break. So you find the hardest problem, fix it, and then expand so that it works in other areas. Scalability is the key issue, the ability to go across large numbers, and we're going to learn how to do it. If the Barksdale Initiative can solve the reading problem in Mississippi, it can certainly be expandable and scalable to other states and other school districts in America.

Q: What happens if it doesn’t work?

JB: What happens if it doesn't work? This is going to work. We've got the right team and the right emphasis, and we're going to make sure that it does work. Just like Babe Ruth pointing toward the fence -- once you've made a commitment like this, you've got to make it work. Or as I tell people, we're like the pig at the ham and egg breakfast. We're committed. The chicken is just involved. So it's got to work. We're going to make it work. And whether those children want to learn to read by the third grade or not, we're going to teach them how to read.

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Photo Credit for Bearden Elementary: Maude Schuyler Clay
Photo Credit for Walton Elementary: Chris Hamilton

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