Back-to-basics: Parents and educators working together for children

I got to spend an entire day in an all too rare setting…parents, teachers, and grassroot community leaders working together.

I was a guest of the Mississippi Delta Children’s Partnership (MDCP) at their annual Learning Community. MDCP is a collaboration among five Delta-based nonprofit organizations. Each of the organizations sponsors a “Children’s Village” that provides after-school and summer programs for children in more than 23 small, isolated Delta communities. There theme says it all: “How do we create a culture that values children and their quality education?”

The setting, the challenges, and the people are reminiscent of an earlier grassroots movement, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) which launched Head Start here.

The parallels are significant; the possibilities are thrilling.

John Dittmer, in his awarding winning book, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, correctly characterizes CDGM as “one of the nation’s pioneer Head Start programs. CDGM provided poor children with preschool training, medical care, and two hot meals a day; it also provided employment at decent wages for hundreds of local people who served as teachers and paraprofessionals at Head Start centers” (368-69).

Similarly, MDCP mobilizes local residents including parents and grandparents to provide a wide range of services for their own children ranging from academic support to a youth credit union program.

According to Dittmer and local elders, “The first CDGM program was a success. It did offer a ‘head start’ to several thousand preschool children, all but a handful of them black. CDGM also provided meaningful jobs for 1,100 women and men in these communities. Where the going wage for plantation labor was three dollars a day [1965], teacher’s aides and trainees were paid from fifty to sixty dollars a week” (373). Likewise, MDCP not only relies on community residents to staff its programs, but actively trains Delta parents in how to advocate for their children on educational issues.

Then, as now however, efforts by poor people to help themselves overcome the disadvantages of poverty were met with disdain, and sometimes outright violence by those who benefitted from the status quo.

“The Jackson Daily News compared Head Start with programs in ‘Soviet Russia…Red China…[and] Hitler’s Germany,’ concluding that ‘here is one of the most subtle mediums for instilling the acceptance of racial integration and ultimate mongrelization ever perpetuated in this county…In the Delta town of Anguilla plantation owners refused to permit sharecroppers’ children to enroll in the program, and the Klan burned a cross at the center” (371).

Forty-five years later, the Anguilla Children’s Village has mobilized a bi-racial group of community and school stakeholders in its program which includes Family Circles–a safe place for parents to express their feelings regarding their schools in an open and honest way without fear of retribution” (MDCP, 2). The director of the program is herself a life-long resident of Anguilla. Although the economic situation in Anguilla and other Delta towns remains dire, the response of the people, once again, is to take direct action on behalf of their children.

That sense of ownership was one of the trademarks of CDGM that distinguished it from many other Head Start programs which paid lip-service to community involvement but kept program and budget control in the hands of others. “As Unita Blackwell [veteran civil rights activist and first Black woman mayor in MS] put it, ‘When you [said] CDGM your are talking about the local people–we are talking about people in the community” (373). More than once, when the funds for early Mississippi Head Start programs were held up by various means, members of the black communities they served “continued to operate…programs without pay, providing their own transportation, food, facilities, and classes for 3,000 preschool children” (374).

I think about the sacrifices of those CDGM parents and volunteers when I hear modern educators lamenting the lack of parental involvement, or suggesting that poor people don’t appreciate the value of education and what it could mean for their children. This is not our history. As children, my peers and I heard consistent messages at home, at church, at school—“Learn all you can; make something of yourself; be a credit to your family and community.” And the expectation was that we would succeed and then return to help our communities. Over the next generation, this once united voice became fractured. In too many cases, parents and educators have become almost enemies; suspicious of each other, accusing one another, and losing focus on our common goals.

One of the many reasons for that rupture is the loss of teachers who are themselves part of the community, who knew the children and families they served, and whose sense of professionalism was tied to their realization that they would genuinely “inhabit the consequents of [their] work.” They have replaced in many cases with people who have few or no ties to the community and whose attitude towards the students and their families range from disdain to pity. High quality teaching can’t co-exist with low expectations.

Most notable at the MDCP event was the parents’ very informed disgust with the increased emphasis in Delta schools on testing and drilling versus teaching and learning. As one exasperated mother asked, “Don’t those folk in Washington know this NCLB is hurting our children?” Here lies another sadder parallell to the local civil rights movement. At the beginning of the “War on Poverty,” Dittmer notes, “Ironically, those federal policies designed to improve the quality of life in rural America had in fact made things worse for black Mississippians” (384). He cites several documented examples such as the attempt to extend minimum wage to plantation workers or the early food stamp program which required recipients to pay for the stamps. Both these efforts initially caused increased suffering for the Delta’s poor.

Similarly, NCLB was intended to correct educational inequality by forcing schools to be accountable for the educational achievement of all children. Nine years later, we know that its implementation has led to major negative consequences for the very children it was supposedly meant to help. Our children, here in the Delta, and tens of thousands around the country have been hurt by a blind, fear-driven obsession with regressive remediation and drilling for test scores rather than real teaching and learning. We now know that the more we have focused on testing and test preparation, the less prepared our high graduates are for college or workforce. This is the real recession, that must be reversed. The parents, educators, and community organizations represented at the MDCP event were prepared to take up the defense of their children against these types of misdirected policies.

The old folks say, “What goes around comes around,” and I certainly hope that is the case with community and grassroots activism on behalf of children.