For Dionne Jackson, this event — realizing this beloved person in her life could not read or write — left an indelible mark.
“That’s why I do what I do,” says Jackson, executive director for AR Kids Read, a volunteer-based literacy intervention organization. Founded in 2012, AR Kids Read has a mission to advance literacy education of Arkansas children and families with the aim of having students read proficiently by third grade. AR Kids Read rounds up and sends out more than 200 volunteers to tutor to more than 400 students in 29 schools.
At 7 p.m. Aug. 20, AR Kids Read will hold its annual celebrity spelling bee fundraiser, Spellebration. This year the fundraiser will be virtual as Lisa Fischer will emcee the proceedings broadcast on Facebook and YouTube.
Cathy Tuggle, a former chairman of the AR Kids Read board, vouches for Jackson and notes the former teacher’s passion for the subject of literacy.
“I’ve never seen anybody as passionate,” Tuggle says. “She lives and breathes this organization. She goes out every day and makes a difference. Even during the covid crisis, she keeps AR Kids Read going forward.”
Jackson’s life is testament to the power of reading and how that can propel one through the top ranks of higher education and a life dedicated to sharing knowledge.
“The thought of serving as an executive director of a nonprofit fighting the good fight of making sure all of Arkansas’ kids were reading on grade level just didn’t get any better to me.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
“The thought of serving as an executive director of a nonprofit fighting the good fight of making sure all of Arkansas’ kids were reading on grade level just didn’t get any better to me,” Jackson says. “It was like I was going full circle in my life back to my roots of book reports, trips to the library, and serving in a school, but for me, I was coming back to this point with an entirely new skill set and lots of wisdom I gained along the way.”
Jackson is happy to announce to anyone who will listen — “I am a complete nerd!”
As the oldest of three children, Jackson grew up on a cul-de-sac in the Western Hills neighborhood of Little Rock. Her memories of elementary school are happy memories — walking home from school and a first-grade teacher who would invite each of her students to have a meal at her house.
Another key memory of her elementary school days: “We had black and white teachers.”
Jackson recalls how her parents “didn’t let us watch much TV. We would ride bikes. There was a friend with a treehouse. It was a diverse community and we spent a lot of time outside. There were hills and trees.”
There were no computers and thus no video games to divert Jackson’s attention. It wasn’t hard to find something to read, and Jackson was encouraged by her parents to do just that.
“I was raised in church. There were always Bibles around. We had lots of Sunday School lessons. My parents always made sure we had books. I recall the Arkansas Gazette newspaper in the house and we had Ebony and Black Enterprise magazine.”
Other kids shied away from books and ran toward more physical activities to be the best at baseball or soccer. Jackson found her bliss in quiet libraries and in the pages of various books.
“I still remember to this day getting my library card. One of my favorite days in school was Library Day. I loved the Curious George books.”
For Jackson, her years at Horace Mann Middle School and then Hall High School were akin to a fish finding a large body of freshwater for swimming.
“I absolutely loved school,” says Jackson with no hesitation. “I have always loved school. There are times when school was socially difficult but I enjoyed school work. I had great friends, great teachers and great clubs. It was a fantastic experience.”
How much did Jackson take to school? It didn’t stop when the bell rang and it was time for all the students to go home.
“I made school-like worksheets for my brother and sister to do. I played like I was the teacher.”
Dedication and focus on education were reinforced in Jackson’s home.
“We could watch the news during school week,” Jackson remembers. “We would sit together as a family to watch ‘The Cosby Show’and ‘A Different World’ — that was it. My parents were adamant that we would be doing schoolwork or going to church.”
In high school, Jackson played the bassoon in the band, which she sees now as giving her a lot of confidence. She gravitated toward and did well in her science classes. Her science class in 10th grade was particularly memorable for how thorough it was.
“I think I took every AP class,” Jackson says. “That is how much I loved science. I really enjoyed biology.”
Jackson thrived in high school but wasn’t quite sure that going to college right away was what she wanted to do.
“When I was in the 11th grade, my friends were talking about going to this college and that college. I finally told my parents that when I graduated, I wanted to take a year and travel. They looked at me and said we are not the Cosbys and you are not traveling the world.”
When it came time to apply for college, Jackson looked closer to home than her friends. Hendrix College, just up the road in Conway, checked off major requirements on her list.
“I had classmates going to Washington University in St. Louis and Rhodes in Memphis. I thrived in small settings and I knew I wanted to study science. I like to be close to my family. … I have never regretted that decision.”
Jackson was fully aware that college acceptance was a monumental step for her family.
“I was a first-generation college student.”
Though Jackson made a more or less run through various levels of higher education, her courtship with her husband, Troy, took some time to develop.
“I met him at a high school graduation party,” Jackson recalls. “He was from Camden and graduated from Camden Fairview. He is my best friend’s cousin. We both went to Hendrix. We met in 1992 but didn’t start dating until 10 years later.”
Jackson and her husband are an example of opposites attracting.
“I can talk. You might have figured that out. [Troy] is a quiet person. What attracted me, he always seemed to have an interest in what I said and what I’m involved in. My mother said one thing about Troy is that he has a kind heart. He really does. His compassion for others and our family is very strong.”
At Hendrix as an undergrad, Jackson steered off a pre-med path and toward a post-college career as a high school teacher. Jackson credits her mentor, the late Dr. James Jennings, professor of education at Hendrix, for this change in direction. After earning her college degree, Jackson landed a full-time job as a science teacher at her old school, Horace Mann.
Not content to settle with a bachelor’s degree, Jackson set out to earn her master’s from the University of Central Arkansas. This ended up being an exceptionally busy time in Jackson’s life.
“I was single, worked a part-time job, went to school at UCA and was full-time teaching at Horace Mann,” Jackson says. “My part-time work was as a cashier at Tuesday Morning. My parents put a great work ethic in me. I wanted to pay for my education and I had to work a lot to do that.”
Before stepping in to lead AR Kids Read, Jackson picked up a doctorate in education from Baylor University. Though she says she’s not a “big school person,” Jackson says the move away from home in Central Arkansas widened her perspective in a number of ways. After Baylor, Jackson became a tenured faculty member at Hendrix. In her last three years at Hendrix, she was in an administrative role as vice president for diversity and inclusion.
“During the first three months of my time here [as an executive director of AR Kids Read], working with my board of directors, we made the decision to make significant changes to how we operate fiscally and programmatically. It was not the easiest decision, but it was necessary.”
Under Jackson’s direction, AR Kids Read has started to better reflect the Arkansas in its title — expanding its services to Jefferson, Garland and Faulkner counties.
“She has taken AR Kids Read to the next level,” says board member Sheridan Richards. “She has helped grow and expand the footprint of the organization beyond Pulaski County. We are looking to do what we do more efficiently and to help other organizations help their districts.”
While AR Kids Read sends out a veritable army of volunteers, Jackson is the only full-time, salaried employee of the nonprofit.
“Most people do not know that I am the only full-time employee at AR Kids Read, but I am,” Jackson says. “I am blessed to be able to work with an extraordinary team of individuals and a group of volunteers that are second to none. AR Kids Read couldn’t be what it is without them.”
When not helping AR Kids Read move forward, Jackson is taking care of the various duties that come along with raising two kids. She likes to spend time in her garden. She is a proud member of Saint Mark Baptist Church.
“It’s been my church home since I was a child,” Jackson says. “It’s so special to me because my children represent the fourth generation of my mom’s family to be members there.”
Education is one of the foundations of Jackson’s life. Jackson challenged her father, a longtime employee of the post office, to go back to college and earn his degree. He accepted the challenge.
Jackson’s life has been enriched by the basic skill of being able to read. She thinks of her Papa, his simple X signature, as a continual motivation.
“I don’t want any child to experience that,” Jackson says.
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