The ABC's of Change

Words by Sarah Pitts

Photos provided by TELA

 

The Mississippi Delta has been said to be “the most Southern place on earth.” This cultural and historical inheritance brings with it both strengths and complex challenges, as the South continues to languish in the conflict of past transgressions and future growth. In this particular moment, Mississippi is part of a larger Southern movement of revitalization as communities engage in the work of building a future informed by their past. Crucial to the conversation of progress is the education of the children who will inherit tomorrow’s South.

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When Mississippi native Morgan Freeman moved back to the Delta, the region he calls home, he brought with him a school-aged child, his daughter Morgana. Being a strident proponent of the public school system, he enrolled her in the local public school; however, he was immediately confronted by the sobering reality of Mississippi education: It was failing its students. Lack of funding in rural and “at risk” areas was, and remains, rampant. Requests began pouring in asking for his help funding various programs, and it was then that he decided to pursue his belief in the importance of education through charitable giving.

In the early 90s, Freeman founded River Rock Foundation, a modest grant-matching program that hoped to inspire collaboration between educational initiatives while attracting additional funding by awarding monies to them. It wasn’t until 2012, when Morgana took the helm as executive director, that the organization shifted from writing checks to actively pursuing the early childhood education reform needed so desperately in Mississippi. It was she who insisted that improving child outcomes begins in the very earliest years of life, and it became her job to determine the direction of the foundation during this pivotal shift.

In order to distinguish the nonprofit’s work from the dozen or more River Rock Foundations that populate a Google search of the name, Morgana and the Board of Directors renamed their new venture the Tallahatchie River Foundation, reflecting the character of an organization whose direct services are focused in Tallahatchie County, but whose vision encompasses the improvement of education in the state, the region, and the nation as a whole. To learn how to best serve the residents, especially the children, of Mississippi, Morgana resolved to explore firsthand the experiences of this particular community, so that the advocacy, messaging, and goals of the foundation were informed by real-life needs. 
 

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It was immediately apparent to Morgana that in this part of the Mississippi Delta, many children start life already at a deficit. With its large percentage of impoverished children experiencing toxic stressors such as home insecurity and food scarcity, which hinder critical brain development in the early stages of life, Mississippi presented the foundation with abundant and complex issues surrounding early education reform. Although there were already many effective organizations running literacy intervention programs for Mississippi children in the most challenged reading groups, Morgana saw these efforts as a mere band-aids.

The early educational years of a child’s life affect who they are for the rest of their lives, and can either prepare them for success in academia or entirely impede their ability to develop critical thinking skills; therefore, it is critical that qualified Pre-K teachers support and nurture children in their earliest years. The time before third grade is crucial for building a foundation of educational success. Third grade performance is seen as such a significant predictor of a child’s future that it is used by states to predict the expected workforce size and the number of expected prisoners. 

So what is it about third grade? This marks the year in which a student shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. If a child lacks basic reading proficiency by the time he or she reaches third grade, the chances of entering a competitive workforce or even college become slim. Says Morgana, “Without that third grade reading comprehension milestone, learning is a struggle. And when learning is a struggle, students act out, give up, and are left behind.” This is why the primary work of the foundation in early education has been to develop what Morgana calls a “reading brain.”
 

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The Tallahatchie Early Learning Alliance Initiative pays the salaries of qualified teachers to direct their Pre-K Lead Agency in Tallahatchie County. These educators strive to cultivate a positive learning environment through language and interaction. Early childhood is comprised of learning-based play that requires careful attention—whether that means attention to specific needs of individual students, the voices of parents and the community, or the qualitative and quantitative data that inform best practices in the classroom. This innovative, collaborative effort has evolved over time in order to continue meeting the needs of students in Tallahatchie County. The foundation hopes that it will one day inform Pre-K education in the state as whole. Perhaps, in time, the entire country will be looking to Mississippi as the pinnacle of childhood education.  

But much work remains to be done. There’s a reason why Mississippi is currently ranked 46th in state education by US News; according to Morgana, this is due to a lack of focus on setting up each student for success, which stems from a failure to value education. After all, this is a state that does not fully fund K-12, creating underfunded school systems that turn out more and more people unqualified to enter the workforce. This has built a perpetuating cycle of drain on the economy, as underfunded education causes a continuous loss of money. 

With little support from the state’s government, educational reform is almost entirely a nonprofit endeavor in Mississippi, and there are many impactful organizations working to improve student outcomes. These efforts have arisen out of communities that have demanded better—communities that have come together to build sustainable support for their children. We must all recognize that we all want what’s best for our children.