Indianola Promise Community:
Improving Academic Outcomes in the Delta

Deborah Moore

Across the U.S., several Promise Neighborhoods have been established under the legislative authority of the Fund for the Improvement of Education Program. Since its inception through the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program has become a widely heralded public-private partnership that provides education and community services to low-income parents and children.

In 2010, the Delta Health Alliance (DHA) received a planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education to begin building the infrastructure needed for the Indianola Promise Neighborhood (Community). Indianola was poised for this work to mirror many aspects of the Harlem Children’s Zone in regard to need and demographics. The implementation grant received in 2012 allowed DHA to create a continuum of services for children and families in Indianola to support their success.

Indianola is a small city located in rural Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. Historically, agricultural and manufacturing industries were the employers of most residents; many of these jobs have either moved out of the country or simply no longer exist because of changes in agriculture brought on by technological advances. As a result, many economic, education and social disparities exist in Indianola.

Almost 80 percent of city residents are African-American, with over one-third living below the federal poverty level. The annual median household income is $27,941. Indianola Promise Community (IPC) has 3,000-plus children under 18 years of age in its footprint. IPC targets the four public schools in Indianola with approximately 2,200 students.

DHA, also located in the rural Mississippi Delta, is the umbrella organization for IPC. DHA is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization that seeks to change health care and education in the region by improving access to health services, promoting healthier lifestyles and expanding educational opportunities. DHA has been a leader in supporting and operating community-based clinics that serve as a medical home for patients; implementing new technologies such as electronic health records, health information exchange networks, and telehealth diagnosis and treatment centers; managing innovative education programs in community settings; and creating robust home visitation programs that address neonatal and early-childhood education challenges.

DHA serves as the central authority for IPC, contributing operational stability and fiscal control. The success of this work is strongly dependent on DHA having a comprehensive view of the work of all organizations.

IPC includes over 30 programs that provide children with the opportunity to succeed in school, graduate and attend college. It is a partnership between schools, community and faith-based organizations, clinics, hospitals, early-learning providers and after-school partners. The overarching goal of IPC is to build a pipeline of care to make sure that young children are healthy and kindergarten-ready, and that children who need extra support get it quickly. When this goal is achieved, young people are prepared to graduate from high school, thrive in college and have a career with good pay.

IPC Week Kids' Showcase

Indianola Promise Community and Sunflower County Consolidated School District Kids’ Showcase: As part of IPC Week, students from Carver Elementary participate by demonstrating dance, music and athletics.

IPC has helped to build a culture around collecting and using data in Indianola with the community, its partners and the school system. IPC has modeled how to use data, including analyzing and assessing the data, to make informed decisions about progress toward goals. IPC has also emphasized the responsibility to report data results back to the community, allowing community members to take ownership of the project. This evidence- and results-based infrastructure is now in place and should be available to the community for many years to come, with or without IPC.

In order to solicit ideas and opinions from the community, IPC staff members conduct annual door-to-door neighborhood surveys of close to 350 Indianola residents. Moreover, in partnership with the school district, IPC conducts similar surveys of all middle and high school students. The findings from these surveys are used to improve programs and to share with community, youth and parent groups as a way of inviting their engagement with IPC, in discussing issues that confront families and children in the community, and to jointly craft solutions to these issues.

Prior to the Promise Neighborhood work, there was an absence of a cohesive unit that aligned key education strategies in Indianola. Organizations and individuals worked in silos while providing services. IPC has been instrumental in coordinating services and aligning the activities and goals of child care centers, the pre-K program and Head Start. As a result, across all the key constituencies in Indianola and Sunflower County, partners coordinate their curriculum and assessment. The alignment activities that now take place are systematic and structural; child care centers, the pre-K program and Head Start all use the same evidence-based curriculum and assessment, and memoranda of agreement are now in place between these partners to allow for data sharing and for interprogram referrals.

IPC has been very successful:

  • More children are coming to kindergarten ready to learn: 48 percent of kindergartners were ready for school at the beginning of the school year in 2016 compared with 25 percent in 2013.
  • Not only is IPC contributing to students arriving ready for kindergarten, gains are now being sustained in kindergarten through second grade. In the fall of 2016, over 70 percent of first- and second-grade students in target schools were reading at grade level—a dramatic increase since the inception of IPC.
  • 73 percent of children aged 0-5 have access to a medical home, including a place where their parents go regularly, and a personal doctor or nurse for the parents to ask questions when they need advice about their child’s health.
  • The graduation rate has risen from 61 percent in 2014 to 71 percent in 2015.
  • The IPC Fellows program, a literacy intervention targeting struggling third-grade readers, contributed to a 23 percentage point increase in the pass rate for at-risk students on the third-grade reading gate (36 percent to 59 percent pass rate).

After three years of doing this work in Indianola, DHA has learned several things about initiating a major grant like this in a low-resource school system:

  1. The community will buy in when they realize that programs are being funded and managers are being hired based on objective measurement of outcomes rather than on perceived cronyism or nepotism. IPC is a data-driven, results-based organization; decisions that drive programs are based on quantifiable outcomes. Consequently, it is important to have a system of data collection, data sharing and program measurement at all phases of the pipeline. The community began to see higher-quality results and more community participation when it became clear that IPC used data and outcomes, held program managers accountable for performance and worked with partners in strategic ways.
  2. Through a three-year leadership development process with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, IPC leaders are now practicing results-based leadership. Because of this culture, it is also important to have accountability among partners. IPC leaders believe that progress can be maintained, long after the actual project ends, if Indianola continues to focus on institutionalizing performance measures and accountability systems.
  3. Achieving meaningful improvement requires layers of programs that touch these students and their families. There is no silver bullet. There is no one program or project that can turn a nonreader into a reader, or a potential dropout into a successful graduate. It takes multiple programs working in different ways with each student and family members all along the school trajectory. Because of this finding, it is singularly important that the organizations, institutions and constituencies that help these children and students have their own missions and programs aligned and working together. This is why IPC funds 30 different programs.

Even though DHA has learned a lot and has made great progress, there are still plenty of challenges, including:

  1. Lack of coordinated services in other areas of the pipeline—Though IPC has been successful in coordinating and aligning services in the education process, a lot of work still exists to coordinate these same efforts throughout the latter part of a student’s academic career.
  2. Sustainability—To build sustainability for the work, it is increasingly important that other organizations share in the responsibility. Many organizations lack the capacity to share in the backbone functions, which leaves IPC holding this role.
  3. Poverty—Poverty remains the greatest challenge. Along with poverty comes the instability of the family unit, low incomes, meager local resources for schools, single-parent homes, high teenage pregnancy rate and crime. IPC is addressing many of the challenges in Indianola related to education and has also begun addressing many of the health and social needs of the city’s families. This is a generational problem that will take a lot of time and resources to overcome.

Despite the challenges, Mayor Steve Rosenthal said, “Poverty in the Delta is generational, but I see the Indianola Promise Community as being our one shot at shifting a change from generational poverty. It has helped the community come together to uplift themselves. The Indianola Promise Community has been our quarterback to bring services together; gaps are now being filled so that people can move forward.” As for the future of the IPC, he said, “It’s the one program that increases our odds at being a successful community.”

Deborah Moore is associate vice president of community relations at Delta Health Alliance.

Kids playing in KaBOOM! Park IPC summer camp cooking skills class IPC's Literacy Event story time IPC's Spring Fling craft activity The Art of Living Smart summer camp Community Garden Day at the IPC Freedom Garden

Top row, left*: Indianola children enjoy the KaBOOM! Park built in 2010 by IPC staff and over 350 volunteers.

Top row, right: Youths learn healthy cooking skills in an IPC summer camp.

Middle row, left: IPC’s annual Literacy Event at the Library allows students and their families to participate in literacy activities, including story time. Students wear their PJs and enjoy cookies and milk.

Middle row, right: Students participate in IPC’s Spring Fling over spring break in partnership with the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, learning about music and constructing their own instruments.

Bottom row, left: Students participate in the B.B. King Museum’s “The Art of Living Smart” summer camp; in partnership with IPC, they enjoy literacy-infused art activities.

Bottom row, right: Indianola youth participate in Community Garden Day at the IPC Freedom Garden.

*On mobile devices, read captions top to bottom.

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