The following article is part of a series of real stories about how United Way of Southeast Mississippi nonprofit partners have impacted the local community.
By Jonah S. Taylor and Jaclyn Coleman
“The kids make it all worthwhile.”
Janene Myers has been teaching young children how to read for years. Since 2018, she’s worked as a tutor through the America Reads program, a national literacy improvement program provided locally through the Pinebelt Foundation. America Reads is an AmeriCorps program that plants qualified tutors at designated school sites to instruct children full-time one-on-one and in small groups to help improve student reading skills.
“I was a teacher assistant several years ago, and I found out about the program, knew some friends that had previously done the program. That’s what encouraged me to do it,” said Myers, who tutors at Rowan Elementary School in Hattiesburg. “Basically, tutors are put into different school districts in the area, and we work with Kindergarten through 3rd grade students who struggle with reading, and we just give them that extra help and one-on-one time outside of the classroom.”
The local America Reads program is one of 180 funds and programs managed by the Pinebelt Foundation and one that Foundation Executive Director Mike Dixon said is made possible through funding by United Way of Southeast Mississippi.
“That particular program is one that United Way has been an enormous help in and has partnered with us by financially supporting us so that we can pay for those tutors,” said Dixon.
United Way of Southeast Mississippi funds are allocated to the America Reads program serving the Hattiesburg Public School District. The program is funded through collaborative efforts from community organizations and local churches to provide nine literacy tutors at four elementary schools: Thames, Hawkins, Rowan and Grace Christian.
“This is a program that’s very simple, but the funding is what’s really important. We know how to mobilize people, we know how to hire them, we know how to get them in the schools, but going out there and raising the funds to do it is just a constant struggle. And to have the United Way as a partner, it just gives some credence to the program,” said Dixon.
He said, “The last time we did the grades for the schools - which was of course pre-COVID - four out of the five elementary schools in the public school district achieved B Level, which is the first time we’ve seen that in a long time.”
From the instructional perspective, Myers said that dedicated one-on-one time is a game-changer for the students. During the 2018-19 school year, 64 percent of students in the America Reads program improved by at least one grade level in their reading skills. Myers said the connection that’s formed between the tutors and the students goes beyond the classroom.
“Some students can’t even pronounce the words, and by the end of the year, they’re pronouncing words and reading sentences…If things are going on at home, we chat about that. I find out their likes and dislikes. So it all works hand in hand.”
Myers said it’s motivational to see how far her students have come.
“It’s rewarding, because they take three tests a year: the beginning of the year, middle of the year, and end of the year exams. And you can watch the growth. It’s even more special to me because the crew that I started with here, they started out as 2nd graders and so now this year they’re 5th graders. So I’ve gotten to see them from the beginning to the end now.”
She said the program is not only a huge benefit to the students but to the teachers as well.
“It’s definitely needed, because there’s a lot on the teachers. I know not all the teachers are lucky to have a teacher’s assistant. So with the America Reads program, that’s like the extra help, the extra boost. Those kids that might be slacking or missing out, you can send them with the tutors and they get that extra help. And no child’s left behind.”
Thomas was a 3rd grader in the Hattiesburg Public School District. When he started receiving tutoring through the America Reads program, he was reading below grade level. With the 3rd grade reading gate approaching, Thomas' teacher was concerned he would be held back without further intervention. After a great deal of hard work from Thomas and with the help of his tutor, Thomas began scoring at or above grade level on his benchmark exams.
Although this was a success in itself for Thomas, the program also proved another purpose. Thomas is the oldest of three living with his mother, and his America Reads tutor was there to serve as a positive male role model for him. Now, not only is Thomas reading better, but he has had fewer behavior problems while attending school.
Stories like Thomas’s is why Janene said it’s all worth it. She encouraged fellow tutors to be sure their heart is in the work.
“You’ve got to definitely love the job and love the kids. Build a relationship with the kids. It makes your day go better.”
To learn more about the Pinebelt Foundation and its other funds and programs like America Reads, visit pinebeltfoundation.org.
Pinebelt Foundation is an Education Partner of United Way of Southeast Mississippi, a local nonprofit that strives to create positive change in Forrest, Lamar, Marion and Perry counties. By providing funds to partnering agencies, United Way addresses community issues in the areas of education, economic mobility, health and support services.