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Promise Neighborhoods
Beverly Hale reads to children at a local daycare as part of the Indianola Promise Community’s child literacy program. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

INDIANOLA, Miss. — Katrice Warren was away at college when she learned she was pregnant. She decided not to go it alone and returned to her family and this rural Delta town where half the school-aged children live in poverty and attend some of the worst schools in the nation.

At the time Warren didn’t know the first thing about parenting and said when she started a family she had “always pictured myself having stuff together and having a house.” But she did find help.

When she was six months pregnant, Warren discovered a Parents as Teachers program that pairs expectant or new mothers with experienced ones. She learned more about prenatal health, child growth and development, how to eat healthy and talk to her baby in the womb.

“It seemed like something I needed being a first-time parent,” Warren said recently while watching her now 2-year-old daughter draw. “I didn’t know what to do.”

The program is part of the Indianola Promise Community (IPC), a federally-funded, community-based effort. Nationwide, there are dozens of so-called Promise Neighborhoods, or zones, that aim to offer a continuum of “cradle to career” services to lift low-income children out of poverty and improve outcomes for families.

In 2010, the nonprofit Delta Health Alliance became one of only two rural organizations to receive a Promise grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which provided more than $330,000 to plan a Promise Neighborhood. In 2012, the Alliance, which has run dozens of community programs in the Delta for more than a decade, received nearly $6 million to roll out IPC. The goal is to emulate the success of Harlem Children’s Zone, a widely heralded, public-private partnership that provides education and community services to low-income parents and children in central Harlem.

More than 30 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 are out of school and not working.

Researchers, rural education reformers and Promise Neighborhood advocates are watching IPC closely. They want to see if education reforms designed for cities where there is often an abundance of resources — from existing community programs to mass transit — can find footing in a rural setting like Indianola that lacks them. In its third year, IPC has met these challenges with mixed success but hope is high that the Promise model will eventually adjust and flourish in its new setting.

Mayor Steve Rosenthal does not minimize the challenge to his community, which has high unemployment among young adults and little tax revenue.

“It’s a catch-22,” he said. “It’s hard to tell a young person ‘if you go to school you’ll get this job’ and we don’t have industry here.”

Related: In one Gulf Coast program, every teen mom graduates

Small but meaningful, coordinated steps

Indianola is a town of about 10,600, where train tracks divide the rich part of town, filled with beautiful homes, from the poor part of town. It suffers a history of racial segregation and schools at the bottom of national achievement. Income statistics are staggering: The median household income is only about $26,000 according to Census data, about $27,000 less than the national average.

Promise Neighborhoods
Downtown Indianola, Miss., which mayor Steve Rosenthal says is still steeped in racial mistrust and poverty but could benefit from intense, wraparound services. Credit: Jackie Mader

For children in Sunflower Country, where Indianola sits, life can be challenging from birth. The teen pregnancy rate is nearly three times the national average. Nearly 50 percent of children under 18 live in poverty. More than 30 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 are out of school and not working. More than 46 percent of adults over the age of 25 never finished high school and the unemployment rate in Sunflower County has lingered at or above 11 percent for several years.

“In a lot of cases, these children don’t have a loving caring adult that can spend time with them,” said Rosenthal, the mayor. “It’s not that they don’t care, but they’re busy working. We’re trying to generate stability. These kids don’t know what they can depend on.”

There’s no question that the IPC, with an annual budget of $7.8 million, has expanded opportunity and seen some favorable returns. Twenty-eight programs now target health, education, and economic issues from birth through college, with an emphasis on early childhood. The programs have served more than 4,300 residents since 2013. These coordinated programs also directly address some of the most persistent problems in the Mississippi Delta such as obesity and college preparation.

Each month, more than 900 children up to age 5 are mailed a free book and parents are taught the importance of reading with their children. The IPC’s ACT prep courses for high school students draws more than 40 students each semester, and IPC runs several professional development opportunities for teachers. There are summer camp programs and after-school classes that focus on academics as well as exercise and healthy eating. There’s also a youth council designed to get teenagers active in city government.

Test scores for students and teachers involved in certain Promise programs have also improved. Kindergarten through second-grade students participating in an after-school tutoring program at Lockard Elementary improved in both reading and math scores on national tests. Those students made reading gains three times higher than their peers who did not participate in the program.

“If the school didn’t offer it, you didn’t get it. There were no services for children once school was out.”

Lockard Elementary principal Daphne Heflin said before IPC, the school couldn’t afford to offer the programs that IPC now facilitates, like an after-school program, a kindergarten transition program, and a mentorship program. “[IPC] has provided a link between the school and the community,” Heflin said. “It really makes a difference.”

IPC also provided coaches to nearby Carver Elementary School’s science teachers, and educators who received more coaching time saw more improvement in student achievement. At Merritt Middle School, students in after-school tutoring showed growth in reading, as did students who participated in tutoring at Gentry High School.

Many here see the IPC as the best chance to make lasting change by completely reworking the fabric of the town to center around residents’ health and education. The

Delta Health Alliance has created an ambitious array of connecting programs like healthy living classes, parenting programs, and job training opportunities in the hope that the “collective approach…can break the cycle of poverty,” according to the Alliance’s 2014 end-of-year report.

Doug Imig, a Resident Fellow at the Urban Child Institute in Memphis, is part of an evaluation team for the IPC. He said creating a conduit of opportunity is key to keeping kids on track. “You can’t get out of a pipeline,” he said. “Nobody gets left behind.”

But can a city program work in the country?

Harlem Children’s Zone first launched in the 1990s as an anti-truancy program. Now, that zone encompasses nearly 100 blocks and in 2014, its programs served nearly 27,000 children and adults. HCZ offers programs that range from classes and home visits for expectant and new parents, to an employment and technology center to help high school students prepare for college and career. It offers preschool classes, summer and after- school programs, as well as free tax preparation, family counseling and health outreach programs.

Promise Neighborhoods
Workers from the Delta Health Alliance conduct door-to-door surveys in fall 2014. Credit: Jackie Mader

In 2010, President Obama launched a federal Promise Neighborhood grant program, which awarded one-year planning grants for 21 communities, including Indianola. Two years later, programs were being planned or started in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Related: School success part of broader strategy to target urban poverty

HCZ has been outspoken about its impact. On its website it boasts of a 92 percent college acceptance rate and that all preschoolers were “assessed as school ready.”

But some experts argue for a more cautious expansion approach and question whether the HCZ model can be applied successfully in other communities. A 2013 report by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, concluded that due to the relative newness of the HCZ “drawing firm conclusions from the available data is difficult.”

“How or whether the HCZ model could be applied in other communities is still unclear,” researcher Danielle Hanson wrote in the report, which attempted to “assess” HCZ and its ability to create upward mobility in poor communities. “For instance, is there a uniquely Harlem aspect and local culture that is a key to its success?”

Indianola’s median income is only about $26,000 according to Census data, about $27,000 less than the national average.

Where HCZ and the Indianola program perhaps differ the most has to do with money. In Harlem, wealthy board members and generous donations from foundations and donors fatten the budget. Its fiscal year 2013 budget was $101 million, nearly 13 times larger than Indianola’s budget. Each year, HCZ spends $5,000 on each child and 70 percent of that comes from private funds. Indianola, by comparison, will spend $938 on each child between July 2014 and July 2015, and relies on federal money for 89 percent of its budget.

Success at HCZ is also connected to its charter schools. When founder Geoffrey Canada started out, he planned to work in partnership with local public schools, wrote Paul Tough, in his 2009 book “Whatever It Takes.

In some schools the collaboration had worked well, but in others it was a disaster,” he wrote. The HCZ opened its own charter schools, free public schools immune from many requirements of public-funded education. These schools are a prominent part of HCZ’s success in keeping 1,450 children each year in its care for the majority of their day.

But Mississippi will only see its first charters next school year. That means IPC must rely on a close relationship with the local school district. There are logistical challenges, as well that could slow signs of progress here. Unlike New York City, public transportation is non-existent and the main advertising method is word-of-mouth, sending Delta Alliance staffers door-to-door to assess how familiar community members are with the programs, and to better understand the needs of the community.

Related: In Mississippi, lack of school nurses a threat to health, education

Data key to Delta success

On a recent afternoon at the B.B. King museum in Indianola, more than 20 middle school students were spread out in two classrooms at one of IPC’s after-school programs. Eight students at one table were creating songs on iPads, while students at another table were brainstorming ideas for a film production project. In a separate classroom, students were working on self portraits with colored pencils and oil paints.

Naikya Carter, a fifth-grader who attends the after-school program, said she joined when the program began last year so she could have something to do. Before the program began, she sat at home when school ended. “It was like I didn’t have anything to do,” she said. “I didn’t [know] things that I should have known, like eating healthy and doing exercise…things that will make me strong.”

“These kids don’t know what they can depend on.”

Marilyn James, an IPC staff member who helps link parents in the community with IPC’s resources, said schools used to be the only place for students to attend after-school programs. “If the school didn’t offer it, you didn’t get it,” James said. “There were no services for children once school was out. There was nothing for them.”

There were also few resources for parents. On any given day, James teaches financial literacy, helps adults write or tweak their resumes, and connects them with job training and other resources like the nearby state-run WIN Job Center. Most parents in the area work at a local Dollar Store distribution center, Walmart, the school district or the state penitentiary about 45 minutes north of Indianola.

But James admits some residents were wary at first when IPC set up shop. “When you’re in a rural area, you have families not used to the resources,” she said. Some adults were timid, James added, until they “figured out [the resources] were good.”

Now, more than two years in, many residents have embraced the programs. Since January 2013, more than 3,800 children and 500 adults have been served by IPC. Parents of 91 percent of the school-aged population in Indianola have consented to allow their children to participate in IPC programs and allow IPC to track their progress in school. Participation has grown across the two-dozen programs.

Still, those involved with IPC know it will be a steep climb.

The program relies on a close relationship with its local schools, and those schools have seen a host of changes in recent years. In 2009, Indianola’s schools were taken over by the state and then ordered to merge with two nearby districts. In 2014, the new consolidated district was released from state control and a new superintendent took over.

In its 2014 school year-end report, IPC said attendance in the elementary tutoring program decreased by more than 43 percent at each elementary school over the course of the school year. (IPC identified the use of attendance incentives as a goal for future tutoring programs.) A program that aimed to improve physical fitness and eating habits for third-to-sixth grade students resulted in only minimal improvement in fitness and food habits. One teacher stopped coming to teacher development sessions and test scores later dropped in that classroom.

On top of these challenges, IPC’s federal funding, which will provide $6 million each year through 2017, is contingent on Congress continuing to allocate money to the federal Promise Neighborhood grants.

Related: To help kids out of poverty, you have to help their parents too

To track the impact of its program and immediately identify pitfalls, the Delta Health Alliance is rigorous about collecting data on IPC. It’s required for the federal grant, but the program also wants to see what’s working, what isn’t, and make changes fast. The IPC end-of-year report, for example, identified nearly 100 needed improvements across 21 programs for the 2014-15 school year.

Related: Private academies keep students separate and unequal 40 years later

Despite signs of success, Mayor Rosenthal still worries.

“With any program, you have to build sustainability,” he said. “I hope in my lifetime that our young people will draw business to the Delta…I’m hoping that’s where we’re headed. They have the smarts. They have the ability. They just need a hand up.

For Katrice Warren, who resumed her studies at a local university, help continued after her daughter was born. She receives monthly lessons at home on feeding, potty training and managing Madelyn’s behavior, and was recently accepted into an 8-week program run by IPC to specifically help parents manage behavior. Each month, her daughter receives a free book from IPC’s home library program. If IPC continues to grow, Warren’s daughter will grow up with far more opportunity than she had.

“I can directly see all the progress that our kids are making due to what IPC is doing,” Warren said. She said it excites her to see support kids now have in Indianola. “Madelyn will have an opportunity to go to [IPC’s] programs and get extra help if she needs it,” Warren said. “It really is inspiring knowing that she will have that help due to IPC.”

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