Mississippi Children continue to rank last in child well-being, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 Kids Count survey. Nationally, the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 22 percent.
The overall Mississippi share of children in poverty is 29 percent.
In the Delta, however, children in poverty account for 40 percent of the population below 18. Growing up in poverty can impede cognitive development and the ability to learn, as well as lead to behavioral issues, social and emotional problems, and diminished health. Delta Directions has worked on the ground and at the research level to improve youth well-being.
Exploring Alternatives to Exclusionary School Discipline:
Research has shown that exclusionary forms of school discipline (i.e., punishments that exclude students from class, like suspensions) generally fail to improve student behavior, and can put already struggling students at increased risk of drop-out, substance abuse, and involvement in the criminal justice system. These negative outcomes disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities, who are far more likely to be suspended than their white and non-disabled peers. Although efforts have been made to reduce numbers of suspensions in recent years, many Mississippi schools continue to rely heavily on in school and out of school suspensions. This is especially true in schools with predominantly black student populations, like most public schools in the Delta. The Delta Fellow is currently developing a “toolkit” of possible legislative and regulatory reforms designed to promote more supportive school discipline in the state of Mississippi. This will involve identifying successful policies from other states, as well as scholarly research into best practices and thinking creatively about how that might be transformed into legal or regulatory policy. The Delta Fellow hopes to use this toolkit to drive conversations and build momentum around the topic of school discipline reform among school and district leaders, education advocates, and legislators in the state.
The Delta Fellow is continuing Delta Directions’ long collaboration with Mississippi KIDS COUNT, a project of the Family and Children Research Unit at the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center. Mississippi KIDS COUNT is part of a national initiative funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to provide accurate data about the health and well-being of children, and to use that data to inform policy recommendations. As part of its work, Mississippi KIDS COUNT publishes an annual fact book illustrating the current state of Mississippi’s children and youth through statistics and data. In Fall 2017, the Delta Fellow researched and drafted a set of evidence-based “Pro-Child” policy recommendations in the areas of education, health, and community/family for inclusion in the 2018 factbook.
Clarksdale Baby University
In 2014, then Delta Fellow Desta Reff developed and launched Clarksdale Baby University (“CBU”), an early childhood intervention modeled after a successful program at the Harlem Children’s Zone. The goal of the program is to educate low-income families on beneficial child-rearing practices and give parents of children 0-3 years the skills and information necessary to raise engaged, healthy, and happy children.
CBU is now offering year round course offerings with multiple classes, and has served over 100 families. The program has been an overwhelming success for families in the participating communities. Parents report increased satisfaction and knowledge about their child, as well as increased use of positive parenting behaviors such as alternative discipline use, praise, and increased time spent reading to their child. Several children who have participated have also shown improvement in developmental delays.
Delta Directions also helped secure funding to bring Baby University classes to Jonestown through the Jonestown Family Center and Tallahatchie County through the Tallahatchie Early Learning Alliance. CBU continues to operate through Spring Initiative, a local community development organization.
Click here to read more about participants’ perspectives on Baby University (DD to provide).
Coahoma County Diaper Bank
In 2016, then Delta Fellow Desta Reff partnered with local community members to help found the Coahoma County Diaper Bank, an organization that provides emergency baby supplies for families in Coahoma County, including items like diapers, formulas, and wipes. Since opening its doors in January 2016, the diaper bank has built a strong reputation in the community and serviced hundreds of families. Not only does it provide much needed supplies to the community, but has served as a centralized hub for early childhood resources including car seat safety and program referral. The Diaper Bank now runs independently with its own dedicated staff of volunteers and is open three days a week. It is the first Mississippi member of the National Diaper Bank Network.
School to Prison Pipeline
Schools that lack the capacity to effectively and positively manage discipline problems often over-rely on exclusionary discipline practices like suspension and expulsion that push children out of the classroom and put them at greater risk of involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice system. This contributes to a larger systemic problem known as the “school to prison pipeline.” Delta Fellows have worked with the Harvard Law School Mississippi Delta Project on several projects to tackle the school to prison pipeline in the Mississippi Delta, including:
Writing reports on the use and benefit of restorative justice in schools and low-cost alternative discipline interventions for the Quitman County School District.
Producing a report to reduce exclusionary discipline use in the Clarksdale Municipal School District and presenting those findings to district administrators for consideration by their handbook committee.
Facilitating a workshop on strategies to engage at-risk youth in Coahoma County for community leaders, including the Mayor of Clarksdale, the Chief of Police, and the Superintendent of CMSD.
The Impact of Exclusionary School Discipline Policies and an Analysis of Alternative Approaches to Punishment (Spring 2015)
An Analysis of Programs to Engage At-Risk Juveniles for the Clarksdale Boys of Color Initiative (Fall 2013)
Implementing Positive Behavior Systems in Rural Schools: A Disciplinary Intervention of the Quitman County School District (Spring 2014)
In Fall 2016, students in the Mississippi Delta Project conducted an environmental scan of existing children’s foundations across the country in an effort to provide potential models, guidance, and best practices for setting up such an organization. This report was used by researchers from the Family and Children’s Research Unit at the MSU Social Science Research Center to guide their initial efforts towards establishing a children’s foundation in Mississippi. Since this report, a Kellogg planning grant has been awarded to support further work towards establishing a Children’s Foundation.
Access to Condoms for Youth
In spring 2016, students in the Mississippi Delta Project produced a report on community-based strategies to expand youth access to condoms. Mississippi has some of the highest teen pregnancy and teen STD infections rates in the country and the economic and health impacts of these epidemics are staggering. The report has been used by Mississippi First and their Youth Council to guide strategy development in promoting condom access.
Promoting Access to Condoms for Youth in Mississippi through Community Interventions (Spring 2016)
Mississippi KIDS COUNT
Past Delta Fellows have worked closely with Mississippi KIDS COUNT, which is implemented through the Family and Children’s Research Unit at the MSU Social Science Research Center. KIDS COUNT is a non-profit agency that releases an annual data book containing statistics about the health and well-being of children. Delta Fellows have partnered with students in the Mississippi Delta Project to help KIDS COUNT translate these statistics into policy recommendations for Mississippi by producing white papers and policy briefs on a range of topics, including children’s mental health, maternal depression, teen pregnancy, and low birthweight babies.
Mississippi KIDS COUNT: Literacy (May 2010)
Mississippi KIDS COUNT: Early Childhood Education (May 2010)
Mississippi KIDS COUNT: High School Graduation Rates (Fall 2010)
Mississippi KIDS COUNT: Child Abuse & Neglect in Mississippi (no date)
Mississippi KIDS COUNT: Financial Literacy Education in Mississippi (no date)
Infant Mortality Reduction
Delta Directions has a special interest in reducing the rate of infant mortality in the Delta, which has one of the highest rates in the nation. In January 2009, a student from the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School interviewed health providers and drafted a policy paper about infant mortality in the Delta. This project included an assessment of the potential benefits of implementing the Nurse Family Partnership program, a nurse-home visitation program for first-time, low-income mothers in the Delta. The policy paper was shared widely, and the cost-benefit analysis of the Nurse Family Partnership program was included in a statewide assessment of the feasibility of bringing this program to Mississippi. At the request of the Tennessee Center for Justice, Harvard Law students in the Mississippi Delta Project also produced a policy on infant mortality in Memphis/Shelby County.
Early Childhood Education
Publicly supported early childhood education has been shown to improve test scores and bolster economic development. As a result, there is growing interest in Mississippi for expanding the state’s early childhood education programs. Supervised by the Delta Fellow, the Child and Youth Initiative of the Mississippi Delta Project published a set of legislative recommendations regarding early childhood education in the state in December 2012. Following the release of these recommendations, two students joined the Delta Fellow in Jackson in February to discuss their team’s recommendations with policymakers and activists.
Legislative Recommendations for Expanding Early Childhood Education in Mississippi (Dec. 2012)
Evaluating Childcare Facilities in MS
Delta Directions, through the Mississippi Delta Project, has researched and published a policy paper on the need to ensure that pre-K programs receiving state assistance meet high quality standards.
Baby University: “I Wanted to Learn Everything”
When Artidra Hubbard noticed the Facebook post on the upcoming Baby University course in Clarksdale, she knew instantly that she wanted to register. “I was a first-time mom, and I wanted to learn everything,” said Ms. Hubbard, now a 24-year-old teacher at Sherard Elementary School.
On the first night of class, held at a local church, she remembers feeling reserved. So did most of the other participants. Surprisingly for the small town of Clarksdale, Ms. Hubbard hadn’t known any of the other mothers, some younger than she, others older. Everyone was overwhelmed and reluctant to talk, Ms. Hubbard recalled. As the nine-week course moved along, however, everyone let down their guard. “By the third time we were talking more freely,” she said.
What she learned about mother-baby bonding was her most valuable takeaway from the class. “Bonding with the baby is so important,” she said. “Skin-to-skin contact. Reading. Singing. Making the baby feel loved.” She is mindful of the statistics she learned on the importance of talking and reading for a child’s healthy development and future school readiness. Fathers-to-be came to Tuesday sessions to cover bonding as well, particularly time spent reading, talking, and singing.
The class covered the advantages of breastfeeding in enhancing a baby’s immune system and cognitive development. Ms. Hubbard was won over on the benefits of breastfeeding, a choice she believes only 10 or 15 percent of local mothers make, unsurprising in a state with one of the nation’s lowest rates of breastfeeding. The small number of local nursing mothers comes from negative hearsay about the difficulty and pain involved with breastfeeding, along with a previous lack of local support and instruction, she believed. While her mother and grandmother hadn’t breastfed, they encouraged Ms. Hubbard to try.
Ms. Hubbard’s pregnancy took an unforeseen turn. Aiden was born two months early and spent his first months three hours away from Clarksdale at the University of Mississippi Medical center in Jackson. Despite his extended hospitalization, Ms. Hubbard stuck by her determination to breastfeed. She pumped breast milk on schedule in Clarksdale and made the six-hour roundtrip to the Jackson hospital every three days, driven by her fiancé. Her Baby Unversity allies were a support network. “I was sad about the situation, but they gave me encouraging words. If you ever have a problem, they’re willing to help.”
Baby University is the sole available source locally for its type of in-depth instruction, Ms. Hubbard said. “Without it, there’d be nothing else at all.” Ms. Hubbard and Aiden now go to Baby U’s community play dates.
Baby University was the creation of former Delta Fellow Desta Reff. In fact, Baby University is the proudest accomplishment of her Delta tenure. As of spring 2017, Baby University had offered 12 cycles of nine-week courses with over 100 parents graduating. The course has expanded into a full-time program in three communities. The sessions end with a graduation ceremony in which the students receive Baby University diplomas.
“I’ve seen the impact it makes on individual children and individual families,” said Ms. Reff. “Early intervention is such a missed opportunity in Mississippi. Eighty-five percent of brain development happens by age three. Working with families, starting from day one, helps us optimize this window and gives our parents a rare opportunity to give their children a head start that can carry them through life.”
Ms. Reff is proud of the peer bonding among the new mothers. “Baby U has become a safe haven for many of our participants. They come there not just for the knowledge, but also for the community, for the acceptance, a place where they can be listened to. Many of them don’t have that. Some of them never have.”