Reading is an essential part of learning, especially for children. However, in Mississippi, families may find it difficult to access the resources they need to prepare their children for school. That’s where community initiatives like Reading at the Park come into play.
Founded with a mission toward education, Reading at the Park (RAP) serves to improve literacy and educational outcomes for Mississippi children by increasing access to books for local communities. Read on to learn more!
A 2019 study conducted by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), found that 63% of kindergarten students in the state are below the Kindergarten Readiness Benchmark (AKA: K-Readiness) for reading comprehension and literacy. Meeting this requirement not only suggests that children are ready for kindergarten, but also that they are well-equipped to meet fundamental educational benchmarks through Grade 3.
The requirements for the K-Readiness Benchmark include a 70% “mastery of knowledge and skills in early literacy and numeracy” and is correlated with a score of 530 out of 900. In 2019, the average K-Readiness Assessment score in Mississippi was 502, representing a huge need for increased access to early learning programs and resources for reading comprehension and literacy across the state.
Mississippi is considered a “book desert” or a region that has poor access to reading materials. Data aggregated from United Books, suggests that only 19% of homes in Mississippi have an adequate number of books for early learning. Having a well-stocked library at home has been proven to benefit children in several ways. Children who grow up with books are more likely to have higher literacy and numeracy skills, as well as become life-long learners.
Reading at the Park
Corrine Hegwood and Rev. Les Hegwood, during his time as an educator prior to becoming an Episcopal priest, became aware of the severity of Mississippi’s low reading comprehension while teaching.
Before her family settled in Cleveland, Corrine Hegwood worked in many different school districts as a speech language pathologist. She noticed that in every class less than 25% of her students were reading at their grade level.
“Many of the kids entering kindergarten in Mississippi are not ready for kindergarten,” said Corrine. “There is a significant word gap among children that don’t have access to books and that needs to be addressed.”
Rev. Les said his time as a highschool educator and Mississippi Teacher Corps Fellow really opened his eyes to educational deficits that exist in Mississippi.
“I brought my experience with me into ministry as well. Educational equity, access to resources, and advocating for those things and creating programs that meet those needs has been part of our work for a long time,” said Les.
Inspired to make a change, Corrine and Rev. Les Hegwood, along with Margaret Katembe, from Delta State Library and Kierre Rimmer, CEO and founder of FLYZone, founded Reading at the Park (RAP) as a way of increasing literacy in their community.
“Reading at the Park is what it sounds like. We go to different parks in Cleveland and in the Delta. We go to where the kids are, somewhere central to their community, where they can walk around, and we read,” said Rev. Les.
Reading events are completely free and include food and drinks for children to enjoy while they read or are read to. Kids can select up to three books before finding a place to read with their parents. RAP offers a wide variety of books with reading levels ranging from Pre-K to Grade 12. However, books aren’t arranged according to reading level, in order to make them more accessible to families.
“We don’t want to assume. We’re serving a community and we want to honor that there is a diversity of abilities and that it’s accessible to all that come to engage with it,” said Rev.Les.
Since its founding, RAP has helped over 400 children and has shared nearly 1,600 books. With the help of their partners, Corrine and Rev. Les Hegwood have been able to expand their work outside of Cleveland. They have focused mainly on improving conditions in the Mississippi Delta, where access to educational materials, even in schools, is limited.
“We couldn’t be doing this without our partners. They’ve been a key component to our work and in our ability to connect to communities and expand our service area,” said Les.
Their most recent event took place in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where they shared books with children at the Spring Initiative, a tutoring program based in the city. Looking ahead, Corrine and Rev. Les hope to teach more communities and parishes how to “RAP” and plan on hosting events next month in Rosedale, Mississippi. They continue to be inspired by the community’s support and positive response to RAP and are making plans to purchase a vehicle to replace their “Book It” golf cart in order to make longer trips around the state.
“It’s been wonderful to see the community rally around Reading at the Park,” said Les, “There’s a lot of love for this community and hope. Reading at the Park, and other programs like it, allow people from very different backgrounds to come together around common, pure purposes. Things that we can all agree need our attention, our time, and our resources.”
Initiatives like Reading at the Park show how impactful community engagement can be at improving outcomes for Mississippi communities. Click here to learn more about Reading at the Park and be sure to follow them on Facebook to get updates on their events. You can also show your support by sending a donation to help RAP expand their booklist.
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