Can a Harlem ‘cradle to career’ program succeed in rural Mississippi?

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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, but back at home she 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, Madelyn, 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 idea of Promise Neighborhoods was born with the 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.

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.

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.”

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Small but meaningful, coordinated steps

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

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

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 from a history of racial segregation and schools at the bottom of national achievement. The median household income is only about $26,000 according to Census data, roughly half the national average.

For children in Sunflower County, 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 46 percent of adults over the age of 25 never finished high school and the unemployment rate 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.”

With an annual budget of $7.8 million, IPC’s 28 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.

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. ACT prep courses for high school students draw more than 40 students each semester, and IPC runs professional development opportunities for teachers. There are summer camp programs and after-school classes that focus on academics, exercise and healthy eating.

Some of the efforts are clearly paying off. Kindergarten through second-grade students participating in an after-school tutoring program at Lockard Elementary improved their reading and math scores on national tests. They made reading gains three times higher than their peers who did not participate in the program.

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.

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 popularized the idea of a “cradle to career” pipeline. It first launched in the 1990s as an anti-truancy program. Now, the zone encompasses nearly 100 blocks. In 2014, it served nearly 27,000 children and adults in 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, to free tax preparation, family counseling and health outreach programs.

In 2010, when President Obama launched a federal Promise Neighborhood grant program, the goal was to replicate this model in communities around the country.

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

But some 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. “For instance, is there a uniquely Harlem aspect and local culture that is a key to its success?”

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 per child between July 2014 and July 2015, and federal money is 89 percent of its budget.

Success at HCZ is also connected to its charter schools, where 1,450 children each year are 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. Unlike New York City, public transportation is non-existent in Indianola and the main advertising method is word-of-mouth.

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Data key to Delta success

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

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

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 is a fifth-grader who attends the after-school program. 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.”

Marilyn James, an IPC staff member who helps link parents in the community with IPC’s resources, said Carter’s experience was common. “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.”

On any given day, James teaches parents about financial literacy, helps adults write or tweak their resumes, and connects them with job training and other resources.

James admits some parents were wary when IPC set up shop. “When you’re in a rural area, you have families not used to the resources,” she said.

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.

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

The local 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. 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

The Delta Health Alliance is rigorous about collecting data on IPC. It’s required for the federal grant, but staff also want 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.

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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.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.