By CARL SMITH
Former Mississippi State University educator Jack Harder says one of his proudest moments as a teacher came last year when an area fourth grader proudly showed him his report card: all As and Bs, and one C.
The previous year, Harder tutored the student as part of Project Class, a volunteer program aimed at improving struggling Oktibbeha County third graders’ reading and arithmetic skills.
“Quite frankly, it brought tears to my eyes,” Harder said. “When I first started tutoring him, he was a bit withdrawn and failing everything. We started working on basic skills. By the end of (the student’s third grade year) he had raised himself and passed to the fourth grade. The most fun I’ve had (as an educator) has been working with third graders because you can see them catching on after tutoring for two months. He was so proud of his success, and so am I.
“In three years, I’ve tutored five children,” he added. “I can look back at it and can say I’ve made a difference in five people’s lives. If you can read well, you can apply that to any and all areas of learning.”
Project Class, which was founded by the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, enters its third year of outreach this month. Harder, who joined the program at its inception and now serves as a project recruiter, said volunteers typically begin tutoring at-risk students in October once teachers have a feel for who needs help. The program lasts throughout both the Oktibbeha County School District’s and the Starkville School District’s full year.
Those interested in volunteering with Project Class can contact the GSDP’s project liaison, Donna Williams, at 662-323-3322. Before entering the school systems, applicants must pay a $36 fee for a background check.
Once teachers identify students who need tutoring, the GSDP assigns volunteers to the county and city schools based on their schedules.
“We currently have about 30 volunteers, but we’d love to get more,” Williams said. “A lot of the volunteers we get are retired educators who are very gung-ho about education, but then there are also young professionals and parents with children who want their school systems to do better. It’s such a good program that if you tell your boss what you want to do, I think they’ll work with you.”
Recently, Starkville School District’s Ward Stewart Elementary School (grades 3-4) received the school system’s highest Quality Distribution Index score — 168 — from the Mississippi Department of Education, while Henderson Elementary School’s (fifth grade) score — 158 — reflected a 14-point improvement from last year. Ward Stewart’s score was just 2 points shy of earning the school a high-performing designation, and both schools earned successful-school designations from the state.
Ward Stewart Principal Diane Baker said Project Class’ impact reaches students at their most formative point in education. The program’s success, she said, is reflected in her school’s QDI scores.
“In third grade, we’re still learning to read. The older we become, we’re reading to learn. It’s emphatic that children are equipped with the reading skills to go beyond and learn specific subjects like science, math and history,” she said. “I can’t help but to believe (Project Class) played an integral part in Ward Stewart’s success. Not only are our children learning through tutoring, but they’re also bonding with volunteers. They all look forward to them coming to school.”
Following overall poor district level and high school ratings, Gov. Phil Bryant issued a state of emergency for Oktibbeha County School District.
The county school board was dismissed and the state is in the process of taking over the district. Although the district’s two high schools both received failing designations from the state, West Oktibbeha County Elementary School (176) and East Oktibbeha County Elementary School (136) both received passing grades from the state. WOCES was named a high-performing school by MDE, while EOCES received a successful designation.
Due to the county school district’s leadership change, Harder said he was unsure if Project Class would continue at OCSD. Calls placed to Interim Conservator Jayne Sargent through the week went unreturned as of press time.