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CNN Today

New Economy Entrepreneur Puts Fortune to Use in Mississippi School System

Aired May 9, 2000 - 2:43 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: A new economy entrepreneur is spending some of his fortune to try to rescue the schools in his home state. We get that story from CNN's Brian Cabell.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: All right, let's turn the page and see what he does.

BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): First-graders are learning to read at Churchill Elementary in West Point, Mississippi.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: To play.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Very good reading.

CABELL: It can be a struggle. Mississippi, even with motivated teachers and students, has long had to contend with the nation's highest rate of illiteracy.

(on camera): Despite recent progress here, the problem remains a profound one: 600,000 adult Mississippians are functionally illiterate. That's more than one out of every five residents.

(voice-over): Enter Jim and Sally Barksdale, multimillionaires hoping to help out. He's the former CEO of Netscape. They're funding a $100 million campaign to fight illiteracy in their home state.

SALLY BARKSDALE, LITERACY PROGRAM BENEFACTOR: It is not a gift to the state. It is an investment, and we expect returns.

CABELL: Returns, as in dramatically raising the reading scores of 3rd-graders.

ROBERT KHAYAT, CHANCELLOR, UNIV. OF MISSISSIPPI: We understand that if a child does not learn to read effectively by third grade, then the likelihood of that child being successful is greatly reduced. It's quite likely they will not be successful.

CABELL: The $100 million grant will fund intensive reading programs in grades K through three, during school, after school, during the summer, and with the parents. JIM BARKSDALE, LITERACY PROGRAM BENEFACTOR: And we've given them five years to show good, steady progress across some of the most at- risk children in the most at-risk schools in the state.

CABELL: And if the progress isn't there, the Barksdales say, they'll withdraw the grant. And state school officials say they'll put that pressure on teachers and administrators.

RICHARD THOMPSON, SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT: And just like any other business, if it's the principal, if it's the state superintendent, if it is the superintendent, or whomever it is that's not performing, if we can't help them, then we'll have to ask them to leave.

CABELL: One hundred million dollars can buy a lot of teachers, consultants, and programs. Can it buy literacy? Mississippi will find out, starting this fall.

Brian Cabell, CNN, West Point, Mississippi.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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