The Delta region of the United States is perhaps best known for its many cultural contributions: the blues and B.B. King, literary giants like Tennessee Williams and film greats like Morgan Freeman.
Yet myriad issues (chief among them low incomes and a lack of access to adequate educational opportunities) create a system that impedes the region’s ability to capitalize on its brilliance or grow a sustainable workforce. It is a system that stifles economic development.
Some communities in the Mississippi Delta see opportunities for change by welcoming new residents. Teach For America-Mississippi (TFA-MS), part of a national corps who commit to teaching in low-income schools, has been developing classroom leaders for the state for over two decades. This year, the program supports nearly 200 corps members (first- and second-year teachers) in 23 largely rural Mississippi school districts. These teachers do not all come from traditional education programs, but have distinguished themselves by their leadership; they would be competitive as applicants for many of the nation’s top graduate schools and fellowship programs. Some are from out of state; many grew up here. But they have decided to come to or stay in Mississippi so that they can have an impact. This steady force of college-educated, often early-career talent is a boon in a rural, aging and depopulating state.
The impact of the corps members is multifold. Their students consistently achieve about 1.3 years of annual academic growth, which puts them on a path to choice and opportunity that can shift life trajectories. But in addition to cultivating educational opportunities for students, the majority of corps members choose to live and participate in the communities where they teach. This results in the creation of new businesses and jobs to serve the demands of a young, educated workforce.
One example of such growth is Yazoo Pass, a coffee shop in Clarksdale, Miss. The owner, John Cocke, opened the internet café-style coffee shop and eatery (the first and only one of its kind in the area) because TFA-MS corps members noted that this was one amenity that would retain them in the community long-term. It’s a lively hub frequented by corps members, their students and the whole community.
And that kind of long-term commitment is the key to continued economic growth in the Delta.
In Cleveland, Miss., approximately 35 miles south of Clarksdale, two TFA-MS alums opened Delta Dairy, a favorite local frozen yogurt shop. Located in the main business district of Cleveland, Delta Dairy hires summer employees to staff the storefront—jobs that otherwise would not exist.
Alumni of TFA-MS lead key local organizations, such as the Mississippi River Marathon (a project that has an annual million-dollar impact on the economy in and near Greenville, Miss.), Delta State University’s Bologna Performing Arts Center, and the Delta Center for Culture and Learning (an academic center that shares Mississippi’s story and promotes regional tourism). These organizations all support tourism in the Delta—one of the three top industries in Mississippi.
This dual impact—on both the educational and economic growth of the Delta—has not gone unnoticed. This fall, TFA-MS, the Hearin Foundation and Delta State University (DSU) partnered and launched the TFA Graduate Fellows Program. Each year the program will support and develop a cohort of social entrepreneurs who enroll in the DSU graduate program of their choice (from MBAs to master’s degrees in community development and school leadership). The fellowship is not only incubating new ventures in Mississippi to improve the quality of life and economic well-being of our citizens, it is providing incentive for talented young entrepreneurs to stay in a largely rural state.
Two well-known advocates for public education, Jim and Donna Barksdale, are strong supporters of TFA-MS. The Barksdales are residents of Jackson, Miss., and Jim is the former president and CEO of Netscape. According to Jim, “It starts with the public schools. Fix them and you get the economic development you want.”
As an example, Barksdale cites the choice by a new corporation, bringing over 1,000 new jobs to Mississippi, to establish operations in Hinds County. The schools that will serve new employees earned an A rating from the state.
Despite the success TFA-MS can show, this year a lagging state economy has resulted in a severe, 66 percent cut in public funding to the organization. As a result, the number of total teachers dropped from 269 last school year to 196 this fall.
Programs like Teach For America can boost educational and economic growth in Mississippi. But they require increased private and sustainable public financial support, as Barksdale notes. “Show me a man’s checkbook stubs and I will show you where his heart is,” he says.
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