Catching up with T.Mac Howard, who founded a private school here for at-risk young men a few years ago, can be a challenge. He runs the school, and he’s also its football coach, janitor, fundraiser, marketing guru, and bus driver.
“I’m pretty good at driving the bus,” the father of three young boys quipped in a recent interview. “But everything else suffers.”
Others, however, disagree, saying that Mr. Howard and the school – the Delta Streets Academy – have had an impact on this small city on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta far beyond what could have been expected in such a short time.
Today, the school provides a Christian-based education to about 60 disadvantaged young African-American men in Grades 7 through 11, up from 14 students at its founding in 2012.
Plans call for further “rapid growth,” including adding a 12th-grade class next year.
Gary Dyksterhouse, a local farmer and civic leader, says that it has been heartening to see the town’s churches, businesses, and people from all walks of life come together and volunteer their time and money to support Howard and his school.
Mr. Dyksterhouse has recently helped launch a campaign to enlist 1,000 supporters willing to commit $1,000 a year to the school, he says.
“It will be a slow process finding these donors,” he says, “but we believe the goal to be achievable with enough hard work, determination, and faith.”
Howard and the school, accredited by the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools last fall, are playing an important role in moving Greenwood toward being a truly united city, Dyksterhouse says.
But the reality in Greenwood today suggests that achieving tomorrow’s hoped-for reality may take some time.
Greenwood (pop. 15,860) has been plagued by racial tension for decades. The first White Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization, was formed here in 1954, and the community continues to be sharply divided along racial lines.
Blacks make up roughly two-thirds of the population and live in poor neighborhoods literally across the railroad tracks from the relatively prosperous white residents, who make up less than one-third of the city’s population. Eight percent of local whites live below the poverty line, according to the 2010 US Census, compared with 49 percent of local African-Americans.
Asked if there is any interaction between the black and white communities, Howard replied, “Not very much, unfortunately, although it’s slowly getting better.”
Howard (born Thomas McMillin Howard) was raised in Brandon, Miss., some 110 miles to the south. He entered Mississippi State University in Starkville in 2003, and his first job following graduation in 2007 was teaching mathematics at Chastain Middle School in Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city. In 2008, he moved to Greenwood to teach at the city’s public high school.
After his sophomore year in college, Howard spent a semester working with Desire Street Ministries in New Orleans, tutoring poor children and teaching Bible studies in the Ninth Ward. It was an experience that had such a profound effect on him that later, soon after he began teaching at Greenwood High School, he concluded he could make a greater positive contribution to the lives of at-risk young black men by starting his own school, he says. He had found that there was (and still is) a lack of discipline at the high school, he says.
According to the Mississippi Department of Education, the graduation rate at Greenwood High School over the past five years has been only 67.4 percent. The department awarded the school an F for overall performance in the 2013-14 school year.
“For me,” Howard says, “the [public education] system that we were sending [students] through wasn’t functional.... When a kid can show up to your class 20 minutes late, and there are no consequences, it makes teaching really, really hard.”
After making up his mind to start a school, he contacted Mo Leverett, founder of Desire Street Ministries, for advice. Their conversations also covered challenges such as poverty and racism.
“T.Mac combines old-fashioned grit and determination with uncommon faith and compassion,” Mr. Leverett says. “His accomplishments in the Mississippi Delta are no surprise to me.
“He was a man on a mission when he arrived [at Desire Street Ministries]. I brag on his work everywhere I go.”
At the Delta Streets Academy, housed for now in the First Baptist Church downtown at no charge, religion remains the “foundation of what we do,” Howard says. But he adds that enforcing rules, such as being seated in class when the bell rings and following the teacher’s instructions the first time they’re given, also plays a major role.
“If a student can’t figure out how to follow our rules,” he says, “they don’t stay here.”
Keeping the school all-male, he says, means that the school’s faculty and staff can focus on developing young men both spiritually and academically without “distractions.”
Several students, when asked what they liked about the school, said that they appreciated knowing that the rules would be enforced and that they would have a better chance there of living up to their parents’ expectations.
The school’s mission, however, is not to change behavior, Howard says.
“If a student comes from an adverse situation and wants to get out of that situation,” he says, “there’s a good chance he’s going to be successful here. But if he’s an at-risk student who’s enjoying what he’s doing, he’s going to have a hard time doing well here.”
Many churches in the city support Howard because they recognize that what he’s doing is simply attempting to bring “restoration, change, and hope into the lives he’s able to touch,” and to help prepare young men from poor families “to break the cycle of poverty that’s held them captive,” says the Rev. Richard Owens, senior minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenwood.
But beyond that, Mr. Owens says, Howard urges white churches and civic organizations to take part in what Owens calls the “deep healing of racial tensions” and to help bridge the gap “in a society still recovering from segregation.... He’s a window into a world that many [white] Christians in Greenwood didn’t know existed.”
Delta Streets Academy is supported almost exclusively through private donations and charity events, such as the annual Delta Streets Charity Weekend, which has brought in more than $100,000 so far. The school currently has an annual budget of just under $500,000. Students pay $75 a month to attend.
“The most rewarding thing [for me],” Howard says, “is to see how the community has rallied around these guys [and to see] how they have grown.” He expects the school’s entire graduating class next year to go on to college or university – and all on scholarships.
Yet the school remains very much a work in progress, he concedes.
What has he learned so far? That setting and enforcing rules makes sense, he says. That discipline is important, as is making sure that the students know that their actions have consequences.
“I don’t think there will ever be a cookie-cutter answer,” Howard says. “We’re still figuring it out.”
• Learn more at www.deltastreetsacademy.org.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help children and teens around the United States:
• Helen Keller International serves at-risk children in urban and rural poverty in five US states by offering free vision screenings and eyeglasses. Take action: Help children who are struggling in the classroom because they need eyeglasses.