About the Gulfport Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

In 2012, United Way of South Mississippi (UWSM) began a conscious effort to grow collaborative relationships with organizations that were working to improve the conditions of children and young families. And in the years since that focus began, some exciting things have begun to form from the partnerships UWSM has been able to forge.

Grade Level Reading Network (GLR): Also in 2012, UWSM applied for the All American City Award for the city of Gulfport, sponsored by the American League of Cities, and found a fantastic partner for our community. The AACA linked us to the national Grade-Level Reading Network, which is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that produces the national KidsCount Data Book each year.

Once UWSM became involved in the GLR Network, Gulfport suddenly began to shine. In 2014, Gulfport, the only Network community in Mississippi, was named A Bright Spot in the Network’s national publication for the PreK4Ward program created and supported by the coast community. Launched in 2010 as a grassroots effort to provide free preschool for 4-year-olds on the Coast, this program has seen 100% of the children in the program make significant growth in school readiness. Classes are conducted by a certified teacher and an assistant for twenty (20) four-year-olds with the goal of having these children ready for Kindergarten. Currently, the program operates seven classes, six in Harrison County and another in Hancock County. PreK4Ward is sustained by private donations to UWSM from foundations, corporations, and individuals. Supporting partners have included Mississippi Power, the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, the Dietel Partners, the national Grade-Level Reading Network, the Leo Seal Foundation, Coca Cola, and the Nourishing Place.

In 2014 and 2015, Gulfport was also named a Pacesetter Community, or a community that is setting the pace for the remaining 285+ Campaign communities across the US.

Once involved in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, numerous other partnerships began to form with groups across the country. They include:

  • Vroom: After meeting at a national GLR conference, the Bezos Family Foundation (Jeff Bezos of Amazon) selected Gulfport, thru UWSM, as one of 13 cohorts in the country invited to partner make Vroom a part of the lives of young families. Vroom offers a single iPhone app that allows parents to receive a daily reminder to find a teachable moment with their child every day so their child is truly ready for kindergarten by 5. The app allows parents to answer “Where Are You Today?” and then to receive suggestions, based on their child’s age, that parents can do to grow early skills. The skills grow with the child, and parents are equipped with information that lets them become their child’s best first teacher.
  • Vroom evaluation: Once UWSM began working with the Bezos Foundation, Gulfport became connected to Child Trends Data Researchers, from Washington, DC, and has now been asked to serve as one of 2 cities in the US to pilot an evaluation element that will gather data about the families that actually use Vroom and how often they access the program. This data will allow us to get a better understanding of the parents that get involved with the software, but it will also allow the Vroom team to refine the app to make it most meaningful for the families that use it.
  • Jigsaw & Emory University: In September of 2016, UWSM began to work with the Jigsaw team that was partnering with Emory University. With a grant through the Barbara Bush Foundation, Emory University joined with Jigsaw to develop a software package that could be loaded onto a Kindle-like table for dissemination to new parents. The software provides a basic “how-to” manual for new parents that discuss tasks like bathing their infant and how to recognize a problem, emotional or medical.UWSM met with the Jigsaw team in Gulfport and was selected as the 2nd pilot city in the US in the Jigsaw project. In January of 2017, 2,000 free tablets will arrive with the software capable of supporting parents with new babies. And because UWSM was able to introduce the Jigsaw team to the Vroom team, all future tablets will have the Vroom app. But the most exciting element of these tablets is a link to a Nurse Practitioner that the new parents can utilize to ask worrisome questions that arise with a new baby at home.Jigsaw is partnered with Emory University’s research department that is also going to collect data from the new parents that they, too, will share with us in Gulfport. The data will guide Jigsaw to perfect the program as it continues to grow across 10 other US cities. The tablets will offer information to parents until their child reaches 5. Our team hopes that informed parents will help increase school readiness scores and help reduce the number of Medicaid patients using the local ER as their medical home.
  • Dolly Parton Imagination Library: DPIL is a national program that asks organizations to assume the cost of $30 per child a year to allow them to send a free, age-appropriate book to each child enrolled every month until they turn 5. The guidelines suggested we cap participation at 400 but there are 2,200 children in 4 counties receiving books from UWSM’s DPIL program. We partner with several Rotary clubs, The IP and Harrah’s casinos and many caring individuals to continue DPIL.
  • Excel By 5: Excel By 5 is a MS grown initiative designed to bring a greater awareness into our communities about the needs of young children ages 0-5 and the families in which they live. Currently, UWSM is actively supporting 6 coalitions in our 4-county area w/time, materials, and active support. Supporting partners of Excel By 5 include Chevron, the Gulf Coast Resort Classic, the City of Gulfport, Memorial Hospital, Merit Health, DHS, and First Book.