Special to Find It In Fondren

A press conference was held at Spann Elementary yesterday to announce the Barbara Bush Foundation Teen Trendsetter literacy program. The current program, launched this past fall, involves ten Jackson public high schools paired with ten Jackson public elementary schools along with one pilot program – the first of its kind in the nation – that combines the private school sector with the public school sector, specifically Jackson Academy with Spann Elementary.

Thursday’s press conference highlighted National Literacy Month and lauded the success of the overall program with special recognition given to Spann and its mentors, Murrah High School and Jackson Academy.

Its tie to Fondren is a royal one.

The Sweet Potato Queen® and author, Jill Conner Browne, who is a featured speaker for Bush Foundation events, says she was approached by the foundation, looking for a Mississippi connection. “I told (their representative) to call me, with her not realizing that, in the South, when we say that, we don’t mean it,” she said to a roar of laughter.

Browne’s next call was to Zippity Doo Dah® Weekend collaborator, Fondren Renaissance, and their executive director, Jim Wilkirson, who she said “makes everything happen.” With Wilkirson’s wife Audrey, a teacher at Jackson Academy (and now an adviser to the program), Jackson Public Schools was contacted and, according to Browne, they latched on to the idea.

Jim Wilkirson’s response was, to him, a no brainer. “When Jill says ‘the chirren,’ I know I have to respond,” he said of her affectionate vernacular for the younger set. “However I can help them with Jill, I do. That’s what it’s about.”

Wilkirson added his thanks to the Bush Foundation for taking a chance on a public/private partnership, but already he’s looking ahead. “Now, do we try college?” he asked of growing the Teen Trendsetters beyond the preparatory set. “As a college student, can you do the same thing, coming back to an elementary school to mentor?” Whatever shape it takes, he said there is one end goal. “We know our needs are vast and great but it can’t be done by the city and school alone. It takes us going to the private sector and corporate partners to bring us together to make it happen.”

Browne echoed, “All that matters in this is that we are people who love children, Jacksonians who want our children to do well, and Mississippians tired of being number 50,” she told.

Dr. Michelle King, the Chief Academic Officer for Jackson Public Schools, said the school district immediately liked the concept. “It’s an opportunity to continue the momentum (of Alignment Jackson’s Elementary Initiatives), focusing on early elementary literacy,” she said. “We hear the idea of scaling up and embrace that opportunity throughout our district.”

Dr. Cedric Gray, Superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, said the Teen Trendsetters program is tearing down boundaries and building relationships. “When we look in the eyes of our children, we want to be able to say we’ve done all we can to help them,” he added.

Audrey Wilkirson said she could talk about the tangible things — a great program, great books given to kids to take home and the training their mentors receive. “But it’s so many intangible things,” she explained. “it’s that feeling you get working with a kid to sound out words and then you hear them read with inflection and emotion.” As a parent and teacher, she said, to see it, not only in her (JA) students but in kids at Spann, means a lot. “When you have the life skills our young people learn, it’s not just a program but indeed something that will effect their lives forever.”

Mississippi First Lady Deborah Bryant partnered with the Barbara Bush Foundation in 2014 to give parents the “Love, Read Learn” Baby Journal. Now, she said, she is pleased to see the expansion of their efforts in the state. “I appreciate this innovative approach to literacy that builds relationships and vital reading skills. I’m excited to learn they are establishing this program in the state of Mississippi and I look forward to it growing in the years to come.”

Since the inception of Teen Trendsetters in Florida in 2002, more than 42,000 teens and elementary students have benefited. These outstanding teens have logged more than 360,000 volunteer hours and their mentees have received more than 300,000 books for their own “at-home” library. Already in Jackson, 201 mentors and 211 mentees participate.