INDIANOLA, Miss. — Ask Arlesia Gilson, a sixth-grader at Carver Elementary School, how her school changed in recent years and she says, “It got harder.”

But four years into a five-year, $30 million grant, U.S. Secretary of Education John King said he believes education in Indianola has gotten better.

King Thursday toured the Indianola Promise Community in Mississippi’s Sunflower County, one of 12 communities the administration funds nationwide. The visit was part of a back-to-school bus tour that King started in Washington, D.C., and will conclude Friday in New Orleans.

One of President Barack Obama’s signature education initiatives, promise neighborhoods are meant to provide services including preschool, tutoring, summer camps and access to social services in an effort to boost academic achievement in schools. The neighborhoods are modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City.

“It’s an example of providing wraparound services so we’re not putting all the burden on the schools,” King told reporters after getting a tour of Carver and other sites, including a remodeled city swimming pool and a playground. “We see promise neighborhoods as part of an overall investment to support our young people, because it’s a good investment in the long run.”

Karen Matthews, the CEO of the Stoneville-based Delta Health Alliance, which won the grant to provide services, said the Indianola community has some positive results to tout. The community says in 2013, 25 percent of students tested as ready to start kindergarten in Indianola, as opposed to 52 percent last year.

One of the biggest changes is coordinating services across a community, said Sarah Gillespie, a research associate at the Urban Institute. The nonprofit was hired by the federal government to provide technical assistance to promise neighborhoods. Another change is collecting data and analyzing it, Gillespie said. No nationwide evaluation of the effort has yet been completed, although King said he expected one would be. King said he believed Indianola was in the “top tier” of the country’s promise neighborhoods.

By some measures, though, schools in Indianola still linger near the bottom of state rankings. Gillespie said it’s not realistic to expect to see widespread changes for at least half a generation, as younger children who’ve had the benefit of services advance in school.

“It takes a long time — 10 or 15 years,” she said.

But with its $6 million a year funding set to expire in 2017, Indianola and the other efforts face questions about what they will do when the federal money runs out. For some of the communities, that could mean corporate philanthropy

“Some of the promise neighborhoods are in places where there’s a Fortune 500 company who can make a significant investment,” King said.

But he acknowledged that’s less likely in Indianola, one of two rural promise neighborhoods of the 12 funded. Matthews said her group is seeking money from foundations and Gov. Phil Bryant — whose education adviser attended Thursday’s event. Matthews also said she hoped Congress might extend funding for a few more years so the community could produce more results. A staffer from U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a backer of the Delta Health Alliance, was also present.

“Right now we need a little more time,” Matthews said.


This story has been corrected to show the Indianola Promise Community gets $6 million a year in federal money, not $5 million.


Online: Indianola Promise Community: http://bit.ly/2cqSVDA


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