By Chris Kieffer
During the past four years, not one active member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi has become a teenage parent.
The organization served 1,800 individuals ages 6 to 18 in five counties last year. That included about 600 youth in its two Tupelo locations, Haven Acres and Northside.
Of those 600, 99 percent qualified for federal lunch subsidies because of their family’s low income, said Zell Long, chief professional officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi. That is a demographic that is both more likely to produce teenage parents and less likely to be able to support those parents and their new children.
Despite those statistics, none of the 1,140 teenagers who were members of the organization between Jan. 1, 2008, and Jan. 1, 2013, has either become pregnant or fathered a child during that time.
“I can’t stop smiling,” Long said of the organization’s success. “I love sharing that.
“I think it is because of the programs. I think they listen and when they know how to make the right decisions, they do it.”
This week, the Daily Journal’s “State of Our Schools” series has outlined the challenges poverty and family structure place on students in school. Organizations like Boys & Girls Club can play an important role in supporting those children, experts say, by keeping them active in the afternoon, supporting their school work and building self-esteem.
The organization keeps children engaged after school and during the summer. Its many programs focus on helping members – many of whom come from difficult home situations – develop health and life skills, character and leadership traits and academic success. Among them is a sex education course that focuses on the importance of abstinence.
“We are a youth development organization so we encourage our members to set short- and long-term goals, graduate from high school, graduate from college, if not college, to pick up a trade,” said Tonny Oliver, director of programs for Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi. “We want to help them develop a blueprint to be successful in life.”
On a recent afternoon, youth spread throughout the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Haven Acres Clubhouse.
Some gathered in a room where they completed homework assignments or read books. Others attended an abstinence-based sex education program. A group of teens met in the game room with unit director Mattie Mabry and discussed challenges they faced.
Among them was Tupelo High School freshman Loren Games, 14. An aspiring anesthesiologist, Loren said the organization helps members to stay focused.
“It opens up your mind-set and helps you think about your future,” she said.
Addressing the economic and social challenges that underlie many of Mississippi’s educational difficulties will involve deliberate approaches that bridge the gap between schools and communities, many experts say.
“To use a basketball term, we have to have a full-court press on the factors, the social and economic factors that diminish the capacity of people to be educated,” said former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a longtime advocate for improving education in the state.
The question of exactly where to focus draws many answers. Some say it starts with changing the education system and others call for adult training, support for those in poverty or a greater collaboration of services.
As Mississippi tries to help more people escape cycles of generational poverty, these discussions will be important.
“Someone has the answers, and if people will get together and talk, it will make a difference,” said Lewis Whitfield, CREATE Foundation senior vice president.
Claiborne Barksdale, the CEO of the Oxford-based Barksdale Reading Institute, said one focus must be finding ways to increase employment.
“If I’m worried about paying my light bill and my medical bill and I’m worried about paying my rent and my car is busted down and I’m having trouble holding onto jobs, it is hard to feel warm and fuzzy about coming home and reading at night to my children,” he said. “That is just a fact.”
The sentiment is shared by the Rev. Chris Traylor, head of Lee County’s NAACP.
“Poverty is a generational cycle, and until more jobs become available, the cycle will remain,” he said.
Overcoming challenges presented by Mississippi’s high rates of poverty, unmarried mothers and teenage pregnancies will require schools to be more creative.
“For serving a community with lower socioeconomic (demographics), you have to go above and beyond what would normally be organized for that middle-class school, for lack of a better term,” said Ron Nurnberg, executive director of Teach For America-Mississippi. “Otherwise, what can be seen as deficits are going to negatively impact school culture and learning until those basic needs can be met.”
That may mean bringing in social workers or having dentists visit the school to give lessons on dental hygiene, he said. It might include having a staff person whose job is to reach out to businesses and community organizations.
“It means trying to think through who are their clients or client families and what are their needs and trying to create under one roof access to these things because parents have limited time outside of work,” Nurnberg said. “How can you make a one stop fits all?”
Longtime education advocate Andy Mullins cited the example of the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, which creates a network of services that includes parent workshops, after-school programs, social services, health programs and community building programs to residents of a 97-block area in Harlem. It includes both charter schools and support for existing public schools.
“I’d like to see more service-type schools in high-poverty areas, which is very controversial, where a working parent could bring that child at any time of the day or night, you give them a 24-hour period and rest assured that that child would get good, quality care where the child would be read to, where the child would be picked up and loved if the parent was not there, where the child could be immunized and have three good meals,” he said.
Some educational leaders say Mississippi should consider restructuring its school calendar, using a shorter summer break with mini one- or two-week breaks throughout the year. The current calendar, with a long 10-week summer break, is based on the need for students to be available to help on the farm, which is now mostly obsolete, educators say.
The extended time away from school is particularly harmful for low-income students, who are less likely to attend summer camps or participate in educational enrichment during the summer.
Also harmful for low-income students, many say, is the lack of educational opportunities available to them before they start kindergarten. So much of a child’s development occurs in his or her first five years, they say, but children in distressed households often don’t have access to the same enrichment as their peers. Thus, they arrive at school with an educational gap that is often never closed.
“You can’t depend on a 16-year-old mother who can’t read herself to teach her child cognitive skills before they come to school,” said former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus, who remains active in efforts to improve the state’s schools.
Mississippi’s Legislature agreed last spring to spend $6 million on two early-learning initiatives – $3 million on a program that would provide grants to community collaborations and $3 million on the Mississippi Building Blocks program that works to improve the quality of existing centers. It was the first funds the state has provided to pre-kindergarten.
The chair of the Senate Education Committee, Oxford Republican Gray Tollison, said he’d like to see those funds increased.
Programs for adults
The state’s approach must be two-pronged, Molpus said. It must both improve the quality of all of its public schools and also train adults who didn’t get a good education so that they can find better jobs.
Tollison said he’d like to see the state improve its dropout recovery programs, helping those individuals get GED credentials or even high school diplomas and then college degrees. Community colleges and universities also can do more, he said, such as providing housing assistance for enrolled single mothers.
The Women’s Fund of Mississippi has a new program with the state’s community colleges where it is providing scholarships for low-income students and also funding services like child care. The idea is to make higher education more accessible for young mothers.
Meanwhile, Hope Credit Union in Jackson is a nonprofit with a goal to make it easier for low-income residents to have access to loans for small businesses and home ownership.
“The goal is to bridge the capital gap with the ultimate goal of building wealth in historically underserved communities and historically underserved populations,” said Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, an affiliate of Hope.
Another part of the equation is efforts to help parents who not have gotten a good education to be better role models for their school-aged children. Traylor said parenting workshops can be useful, particularly for those who had bad experiences when they were students.
“A lot of parents from poverty – they are not educated, and sometimes they are intimidated around educated people,” Traylor said. “They fear they will be viewed as unintelligent.”
It can be helpful to show parents what they can do to help their children at home, said former State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham.
“I don’t think there is an amount of love in the world equal to what a parent has a for a child,” Burnham said. “To think they would intentionally neglect a child’s learning – that happens, but is very remote and rare. It is a matter of I don’t know what to do. I think what happens more than we realize is parents are embarrassed to ask. They don’t know and they are embarrassed to ask.”
Church and community
Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said government programs – though well-intentioned – often become unwieldy. The impetus, he said, must come from churches and community groups doing more to help those with difficult home lives.
“The churches and community groups can focus on people who truly are in need and are the ones that are most in need,” he said.
That includes both outreach and support for existing church members. Bishop Clarence Parks of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance in Tupelo said his congregation often provides important encouragement to teens struggling in school. He credits that for the fact that the church has seen very few of its members drop out of school over the years.
For children of parents who did not complete school, Parks said, it can be disheartening when they reach a level where their parents are unable to help them with homework. That’s where other church members can help.
“When a parent doesn’t know something, someone in our church can help that child,” he said.
Molpus said he’d love to see churches and community groups do more. He doesn’t, however, believe that will be enough.
“We’ve had the whole history of Mississippi for churches and community groups to educate young children,” he said, speaking specifically about pre-K. “It has not happened. It is not going to happen. The resources are not there.”
The path to solutions, Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House said, must include collaboration, and also must be driven at the local level.
“I still think the conversation has to be that high-level, across-the-board conversation between policy makers, community developers, economic developers, churches and civic organizations that really are the catalyst to real change,” she said.
Finding answers will be a slow process, Molpus said, acknowledging that many of these challenges will take generations to address. The key, he said, is acknowledging the issues and taking deliberate steps to address them.
“We are either going to move the arc of Mississippi history to a brighter, more educated future, or we are going to move the arc of history toward this being a dark, unsafe, high-poverty state with a reputation that carries with us forever,” he said. “So I think we make a choice in 2013, do we move the arc of history up or do we continue down into darkness?”