Literacy skills accelerating among Hattiesburg students due to new program combatting pandemic-related learning loss

United Way of Southeast Mississippi partners with MiSsion Acceleration to provide ‘high quality reading support’ at local after school centers


HATTIESBURG, MISS. – Hattiesburg students are turning a new page when it comes to literacy. Many local students have shown notable reading growth in a short amount of time, thanks to a new program created to combat pandemic-related learning loss.

MiSsion Acceleration is a pilot program designed to accelerate reading achievement for 1,000 children in Mississippi by providing personalized reading support to help overcome the loss of academic instructional time due to COVID-19. Children at various after school centers throughout Hattiesburg receive one-on-one instruction from local college students who are trained as Academic Guides.

“Having access to high quality tutoring content was the motivation behind the design of this program because all children deserve high quality reading support,” said Dr. Ashley Sheils, director of MiSsion Acceleration. “MiSsion Acceleration has doubled in size from our summer pilot, including the total number of Academic Guides and K-5 scholars participating, and seeks to continue our trajectory of upward growth and gains in reading achievement this Spring.”

United Way of Southeast Mississippi is a partner of MiSsion Acceleration through the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. As a partner, United Way has assisted in facilitating the program by recruiting Academic Guides from area colleges and providing educational resources for the guides and students.

The K-5 pilot program was initially offered for children enrolled at First Start Academy in Hattiesburg in Fall 2021. Kari Lynn Somers, director of Community Impact at United Way of Southeast Mississippi, said the Fall program at First Start Academy saw incredible improvement for those students. Altogether, 22 children from First Start received 20,000 minutes of personalized learning through the program. That additional learning has made a significant impact, according to Somers.

“Students experienced, on average, four months of reading growth in the 10 weeks they received interventions through the MiSsion Acceleration program,” said Somers. 

Somers largely attributes the success of the Hattiesburg program to the work of the six Pine Belt area college students who served as Academic Guides during the Fall session. The tutors included Corretta Watts, The University of Southern Mississippi (USM); Gabriela Maldonado, William Carey University (WCU); Emma Epps, WCU; Anita Clark, WCU; Lauren Brown, USM; and Amber Ruble, WCU.

Because of its quick success, the program has since expanded to two additional centers, Tunjia’s Little Ones Child Development Center and TJ’s Learning Center in Hattiesburg.

Meanwhile, childcare centers are excited about what this means for their students long term. Kabriana Harrell is the former director for First Start Academy and was responsible for implementing the program at the academy.

“We had a parent call thanking us for incorporating such an awesome program. She received a phone call from her daughter's school celebrating her for increasing her reading scores. This is what the program was designed for and we are already seeing its benefits,” Harrell said. “I am looking forward to seeing the progress our students will make with post testing. I believe we'll see off the chart results and look forward to having more students enroll next semester.”

Eight-year-old Shamiya Thompson of Hattiesburg is one of the students who has shown improvement because of the program at First Start Academy.

"I was thrilled when Shamiya's school called me raving about her progress in reading,” said her mother, Charkarra Thompson. “Thank you, First Start Academy and MiSsion Acceleration, for helping my baby achieve her goals."

To learn more about MiSsion Acceleration, visit