The Delta Health Alliance

Memphis Commercial Appeal Guest Column: Grant holds Promise for Mississippi Delta

Posted on: April 16, 2013

Promises have a way of being left by the roadside in the Mississippi Delta. Somehow, good intentions come and go without being given time to bear fruit. Hopes are raised and then broken.

This is a story about promises being kept.

Recently, a collaboration of community groups and schools in the Mississippi Delta, known as the Indianola Promise Community, won a Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Over the next five years, the collaborative will invest $30 million in a cradle-to-career pipeline of programs for children and families. The Promise Neighborhood model seeks to leverage all of the resources in a community to improve an array of outcomes such as health, safety, family stability, access to learning technology and increased family engagement in children’s learning.

Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, the IPC is designed to turn a community of concentrated poverty into a community of opportunity. The collaborative is led by the Delta Health Alliance, a nonprofit partnership of universities, health clinics, hospitals, school districts, community groups and other regional organizations headquartered in Stoneville, working to improve the health and wellness of residents of the Mississippi Delta since 2001.

The story told by the statistics in Indianola is striking. Today more than four out of every 10 children live in poverty. The typical worker makes $12,539 yearly, and unemployment hovers around 15 percent. Currently, a third of the youths in the community fail to graduate from high school, and the average ACT score is 15.7 (compared with a U.S. average of 21.2). The ACT organization suggests a student needs to earn a score of 19 to be ready for college.

The IPC response to these conditions is to involve the entire community, starting with the Indianola public schools system, which has signed on to conduct intensive teacher development tied to meaningful student learning outcomes. Second, the IPC is starting at the beginning: focusing on the optimal development of young children. At the other end of the continuum, the IPC is building meaningful college/career programs, and providing family skills training.

As IPC participants complete one set of programs, they will be guided along this pipeline to make sure that each child is on track to academic and adult success. Ultimately, the intention is nothing short of breaking the cycle of poverty by giving each child the strongest possible opportunity to succeed in school, attend college and build the skill sets he or she will need to find and hold decent jobs.

Meanwhile, community and business partners will monitor indicators of student success carefully to ensure that the programs are working as advertised, and that there are real jobs in place for the educated, productive labor force the IPC will generate.

At the heart of the Indianola Promise Community lies another key innovation: a commitment to collecting and responding to real-time data on child performance across key benchmarks. Consulting with The Urban Child Institute in Memphis and the Urban Institute in Washington, the collaborative will constantly review and revise each aspect of the continuum based on the story told by real-time data on child outcomes. If a particular after-school tutoring program leads to better learning outcomes, IPC will be able to identify that difference in school achievement reports and spread the word about these gains to parents, students and the community. The result will be a stronger community, built upon a shared commitment to child development.

A half-century of careful research tells us that the optimal development of children will lead to a more educated and productive workforce and to a reduction in social problems like teen pregnancy, drug use and crime. These proven returns are the reasons why economists like Nobel laureate James Heckman tell us that investments that begin in early childhood are the smartest community development strategies.

The IPC offers a fresh hope that children in Indianola will graduate from high school with opportunities that will not only transform them but also benefit future generations. As we implement the Promise Community program, in partnership with the people who live and work in our neighborhoods, we will also be creating a model that can be replicated throughout the Mid-South. Indianola’s problems and challenges are not unique. The solutions we develop there can be used to turn any community into a promise community.

Karen C. Matthews is president and CEO of Delta Health Alliance.