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Can a Harlem Reform Model Work in Rural Mississippi?

In my latest piece for The Hechinger Report and PBS Newshour, I look at efforts to recreate the well-known Harlem Children's Zone, a public-private partnership in New York City in the rural Mississippi Delta.

In 2010, the nonprofit Delta Health Alliance became one of only two rural organizations to receive a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education to plan a Promise Neighborhood, which aims to offer a continuum of "cradle to career" services. The goal is to lift low-income children out of poverty while also improving outcomes for families. In 2012, the Alliance received more funding and rolled out the Indianola Promise Community, which serves children and families in a Delta town of about 10,600 where the median household income is only about $26,000.

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)

Since 2012, the initiative has grown immensely. More than 4,300 residents have been served in the last two years, and 28 IPC programs now target health, economic, and education issues from birth through college. Test scores for students and teachers involved in some Promise programs have improved and for the first time, students have access to after-school programs and a kindergarten transition program.

Still, there are unique aspects of rural communities, and the Mississippi Delta in particular, that make it challenging to roll out urban reforms. There are few employment opportunities in Indianola, which mayor Steve Rosenthal said is a barrier when trying to motivate students. "It's a catch-22," Rosenthal 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."

indianola.jpg

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)

Funding is also lacking. While the Harlem Children's Zone had a fiscal year 2013 budget of $101 million, the majority of which comes from private funds, Indianola Promise Community's budget is only about $7 million and relies on federal money for nearly 90 percent of its budget. Public transportation is nonexistent and with a relatively new state charter school law, the Promise Community must rely on a relationship with its local school district rather than following in HCZ's footsteps and creating charter schools.

Mayor Rosenthal said that despite the promising first signs, those involved with IPC are concerned about the program's future. "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."

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