When former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and his wife Sally visited Lee Elementary School in Jackson, Miss., swarms of children reached out to high-five them, introduce themselves and show their latest drawings. Jim, dressed in khakis and open-collar shirt, strolled into a classroom and took a third-grader's seat. He crouched forward as each small student read aloud from the The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse--some in clear, proud voices; others in low, hesitant tones. Sally soothingly helped when they stumbled over a word, and Jim encouraged them to read with inflection.
Earlier this year the Barksdales created a $100 million endowment to advance literacy in their home state, and Lee Elementary is among the first of 200 schools that will benefit. The couple didn't just write a check and bask in public praise. First they did more than two years of research--reading studies, visiting schools and interviewing experts--to find the most effective ways to promote reading and writing.
Jim, 57, estimates his wealth as "north of $700 million"--most of which he made when Netscape, a Web-browser company, was sold last year to America Online. The Barksdales had long given to their church, their children's schools and the United Way. But when they hit it big, they felt it was time to give big too. "If there is any money left when we die, it will be because we miscalculated," says Jim. He and Sally considered their favorite causes and decided that "if we spread it all out, it would greatly decrease the chances that we would do something we could point to and say we made a difference."
They set their sights on a huge problem: some 700,000 Mississippi adults--almost a third of the state's population--read below the eighth-grade level, mainly because of poor schools and illiterate parents. "We believe that education and the ability to read are the core of anyone's life--their economic life and social enjoyment," says Jim. "Your third-grade reading level is so important. It is the No. 1 early predictor of high school dropout rates." If you can't read, you can't learn social studies, science or history, he notes.
Barksdale had trouble reading as a third-grader, but his parents got him a tutor, and he went on to become an excellent student. "I've since wondered what might have happened," he says, "had I not got the extra attention."
While the Barksdales were researching literacy programs in May 1999, a Jackson newspaper wrote about their quest. Richard Thompson, Mississippi's superintendent of education, read the article with keen interest. He needed money to expand a reading program that had shown success in some of the state's schools. He called the Barksdales.
After a lengthy discussion of Thompson's reading reforms, the couple were intrigued. The program targeted kids with reading problems, providing them with extra instruction and involving the parents, many of whom couldn't read. It had been tested on 805 first-grade students in six school districts during the 1998-99 school year, and the results were impressive. At low-performing schools where most first-graders had shown no progress toward reading, a majority now advanced at a normal rate. But, says Thompson, "we couldn't take it to scale. We had all these schools with all this need, and we only had the money to do it small"--until the Barksdales got onboard.