Jewish World Review May 25, 2010 / 12 Sivan 5770
Dreaming big on the Mississippi
By Wesley Pruden
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | HELENA, Ark. | Old times in the land of cotton are not quite forgotten, when this old town on the Mississippi River was lively and prosperous. Cotton was king, reigning over the richest soil this side of the River Nile. Now Helena presides over one of the nation's poorest counties.
Bringing back the good times, a fantasy not so long ago, won't be easy, but the community is taking baby steps on a long journey to prosperity. The past, like a long, sleepy summer's afternoon, hangs heavy in Helena. Seven men from Helena became Confederate generals, and from Graveyard Hill you can sometimes hear the ghosts of a fierce two-day battle for Helena and control of the river in July 1863. The traffic on the river mostly passes Helena by now, and boarded-up shop windows and vacant lots line the downtown streets. More than a third of Helena's residents live below the poverty level. Every schoolchild is enrolled in the discounted or free school lunch program, and for many it's the best meal of the day.
Helena's woes are not unique in the Delta, where the blues, after all, were born. (Helena, population 15,000, comes to life for a boisterous weekend in October with the Delta blues festival, which sometimes attracts 100,000 visitors.) The region has all but emptied of whites, who followed the blacks who struck out for St. Louis and Chicago and other places decades ago. The poorest of the poor, nearly all black, are left in towns deep in the embrace of poverty, despair and kudzu, only shells of what they once were.
But the times, they may be a-changing in Helena. A ray of hope arrived last week when the KIPP Delta Collegiate Charter School graduated its first high school class. The town turned out, and the governor came over from Little Rock to make the commencement address. And here's the beauty part: All 23 graduates will become "collegiate" in September, all on scholarships. Two graduates have been accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy. The valedictorian and the salutatorian won scholarships to Vanderbilt, others to Baylor, Notre Dame, Auburn, Emory, Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas and a clutch of Arkansas colleges. Typically, more than half of Arkansas' high school graduates go on to college, but the state department of education says half of them must take remedial classes and only a third graduate.
Delta Collegiate was the dream of a young man from Massachusetts, 1,500 miles by highway and light-years culturally from the Delta, who was dispatched by the KIPP charter school movement a decade ago to start classes here for fifth-graders. Scott Shirey went door to door with his Yankee accent, persuading impoverished parents to send their kids to a new kind of public school, where they would get an authentic education if they would "work hard, be nice." This became the school motto.
KIPP classes, held from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., are not easy; they're not intended to be. Summer school classes are mandatory. Many parents, like the Helena business and professional men Mr. Shirey first went to for help, were skeptical. A college-preparatory education, the goal of the students in the 82 KIPP public charter schools nationwide, seemed a pipe dream for the parents, many only a generation removed from dead-end labor in the cotton fields. Mr. Shirey, with support from the Helena business and professional community, persisted.
His dream prevailed. "They said you couldn't do it," Gov. Mike Beebe told the graduating class. "They said you couldn't learn, you couldn't perform, that you couldn't grab your share of the American dream."
College acceptance and scholarship letters are posted on the walls of the elementary classroom, along with banners from various colleges, to instruct and inspire. "I think kids want to go to college," says Luke Van de Walle, principal of the high school, to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. "They might not know it's an option." One of his students thought he wanted to be an automobile mechanic, but he won a scholarship to the University of Central Arkansas and will study to be an engineer.
Nilyn Gamble is a first-grader at Delta Collegiate. She introduces herself proudly as "a member of the class of 2021, and I plan to major in art at Rhodes College in Memphis."
Rex Nelson, a former chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state partnership to promote economic development, says of graduation day in Helena: "If there has been a more hopeful day than this one in the Delta in recent years, I'm not sure what it is."
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© 2007 Wesley Pruden