The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Delta Literacy Initiatives; & Oct. 23-24 Delta Conference in West Memphis, Arkansas

Posted on July 09, 2012 at 05:11 PM

Illiteracy lies at the heart of many economic issues in the Delta, from getting and keeping a job, to the impact of high illiteracy on business decisions on locating a plant in the region, graduation rates, to following medical instructions. Much more needs to be done in the Delta to promote literacy, and we summarize several examples of constructive activities in this field by President Fitzgerald Hill of Arkansas Baptist College, Save the Children, the Arkansas Literacy Councils, and Arkansas State University.

PLEASE RSVP FOR DELTA CONFERENCE IN WEST MEMPHIS, ARKANSAS, OCT. 23-24, 2012, where literacy and developing a well-trained and educated workforce will be among the key issues on the agenda.

OPENING SESSION: Tuesday evening, Oct. 23, 4:45 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.

MAIN SESSION: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mid-South Community College, Marion Berry Renewable Energy Center.

REGISTRATION: You register by sending in the $100 early registration fees for each individual on or before Oct. 1. (There is a group discount down to $70 each for groups of five or more) Please make out the check to “Delta Caucus” and mail to:

Delta Caucus

5030 Purslane Place

Waldorf, Maryland 20601

The group hotel is the West Memphis Holiday Inn & Convention Center. To get the group rate of $109 for Tuesday evening, Oct. 23, please call the hotel at (870) 735-4055 and make your reservation as part of the Delta Caucus bloc by Oct. 9. There are also some rooms available for Oct. 24 if people want to stay that night as well.

The hotel is only minutes away from Mid-South Community College in West Memphis, which is the host for most of the conference. West Memphis has good restaurants, and Memphis is only a few minutes away for those who wish to visit Beale Street or other Memphis attractions after the end of the Tuesday evening session about 7:45 p.m. or late Wednesday afternoon session.

LITERACY INITIATIVES IN THE DELTA: There are many other literacy initiatives in the region, of course, in addition to those we are discussing today. Here we summarize initiatives that were highlighted at the May, 2012 Delta conference at the Clinton Library.

This is an in-depth message so you may want to scroll down to the part of the presentation you are most interested in, among the following:

President Fitzgerald Hill of Arkansas Baptist College, introduced by Clinton School of Public Service graduate Spencer Lucker, who works at the Delta Regional Authority;

Professor Deborah Duncan Owens, professor of reading at Arkansas State University;

Shannon Maxwell, deputy director, Save the Children program in the state of Mississippi;

Jennifer Oglesby Holman, executive director, Arkansas Literacy Councils.

As always the Delta Caucus greatly appreciates the attention given to the Delta by the Clinton School of Public Service, Dean James “Skip” Rutherford, staff and students like Spencer Lucker, who conducted a public service project in the Delta. Spencer Lucker worked with administration and faculty of Lee High School in Marianna, Arkansas, with key support from the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, to develop a program informing high school students about the college application process and opportunities for college funding aid.

Mr. Lucker and his colleagues in the Marianna project took students to college campuses and engaged in other activities to inform them about the college experience. The Clinton School has a wide variety of partnerships with colleges and other organizations working in the Delta, including Phillips County Community College, the Delta Visual Arts Festival in Newport, the Pine Bluff Area Community Foundation, and Arkansas Baptist College (ABC).

In summarizing President Hill’s accomplishments at ABC, Lucker pointed out that in his six years at the historically black college the enrollment has expanded from 200 students to over 1,100.

President Hill has led the way in promoting many literacy initiatives in the Delta, and works directly with community development efforts in such communities as Lake Providence, Louisiana and Helena-West Helena, Arkansas. Hill coordinates the Delta Classic for Literacy football game to raise funds and increase awareness of the illiteracy problem in the Delta.

Arkansas Baptist College, the Arkansas Literacy Councils, the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff will hold the Delta Classic 4 Literacy football game to raise funds and heighten awareness of the serious problem of illiteracy in the Delta on Sept. 1, 2012 at famed War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

As of today, as a result of the Delta Classic $55,000 has been donated to assist in tackling illiteracy by developing Literacy Councils in Delta counties that did not previously have centers to combat illiteracy in their communities. We need to support this innovative effort to fight illiteracy in our region.

When you buy tickets to the Delta Classic, part of the proceeds go to the Arkansas Literacy Councils to promote literacy in the Delta. You can also purchase sponsorships to the game to further contribute to this good cause, and ABC will of course acknowledge your gift.

We will be sending out additional information about the Delta Classic when it is closer to the time of the Sept. 1, 2012 Delta Classic 4 Literacy.

We would also like to provide contact information for the Arkansas Literacy Councils at 501-907-2490 or see the website at Executive Director Jennifer Oglesby Holman said that ALC can always use more volunteer tutors, and you can use this contact information for anyone interested in participating in that great cause. Tutors can give badly needed help with two hours a week or more of their time.

President Hill asked the audience at the Clinton Library to envision a world where everybody can read. To highlight the fundamental importance of education, he cited a study ABC and the Clinton School did a few years ago in which they looked at the 25 safest communities in the United States and then looked at the 25 most dangerous communities in the USA. They found that a crucial variable centered on literacy–crime was low when everybody in the community can read and crime was correspondingly much higher in areas with high illiteracy.

Hill cited experiences in recruiting students for ABC as well as when he was a college football coach recruiting star athletes. He pointed out the experience of an Oakland, California high school that used to have about 1,200 students and now has 200. The crime is so high that no one wants to go there and the principal acknowledged that they have great difficulty keeping people in school.

On one occasion when he was recruiting for the University of Arkansas football team, he told a star athlete he was recruiting to order anything off the menu, but the student did not want to do so; eventually Hill learned that the student was embarrassed to admit he could not read the menu.

On another occasion when he was recruiting at San Jose State University, a star athlete’s high school coach told Hill he was wasting his time recruiting the young man, because he could not read. Hill asked how the star player made it to the twelfth grade if he could not read but did not get a response. Then he asked where would that young man be at 3 o’clock that afternoon, being tutored to help him read or at football practice? The coach said he would be at football practice.

Hill said that in his case, discontent in finding so many instances of illiterate students became a catalyst for change. He said everybody always points to problems and they will say, “Somebody ought to do something about that!” We ought to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what we are doing to fight illiteracy. We will be known in our lives for three things, he said:

1) The problems we solved. 2) The problems we created. 3) And the problems we did nothing about.

Hill resolved to be inclusionary in the effort to improve reading skills for young people in Arkansas and across the Delta. He acknowledged that this is a difficult time for historically black colleges, yet in spite of the difficulties ABC has expanded its enrollment from approximately 200 students to over 1,100 during Fitz Hill’s time as president over the past six years.

Part of the problem today is that we are trying to find ways to keep people out of college and yet we want more graduates, he said. If you can change the dysfunctionalism that starts in the third and fourth grade you can transform communities; as the research study indicated, the safest communities are those where core reading and writing skills are strongest, and in order to achieve the more advanced goals in education it all starts with the fundamental skills of reading and writing. He emphasized the need to reach out to students who have dropped out and otherwise fallen through the cracks of our educational system.

Hill recalled a conversation he had with a young man at a Taco Bell who expressed interest in going to college at ABC, but he said he had dropped out, and no one at his school had ever asked him about how to go to to college. Hill used his authority as president to offer him admission. Hill said the inclusive approach of ABC is to tell young people like that young man that “If you dropped out, you can drop in.”

Hill said we should never forget the tragic story of a drop-out who threw a rock at on overpass and killed a young lady not far from where the conference was meeting in Little Rock; he told the judge that he threw the rock because he was bored after he had dropped out. Hill said “That young man should have been engaged in the educational process.” We must avoid the mindset that a drop-out is “out of sight and out of mind” at a time when 52% of African American males nationwide drop out of high school.

President Hill cited the disturbing figures demonstrating that in America we spend more money incarcerating than we do educating. We annually spend approximately $30,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner and under $10,000 a year to educate a student.

Among ABC’s constructive activities is a new GED program to address the dropout problem. President Hill worked closely with Bill Walker, director of Arkansas Workforce Development, in establishing the GED program at ABC. When students get their degree, they qualify for financial aid. When the young people learn to read, they can help their parents learn to read, and people can help themselves in a self-sustaining model of economic development.

Another of ABC’s innovations is the idea of using popular, appealing activities like a college football game to raise awareness and raise funds for literacy programs. You won’t get 50,000 people to attend a chemistry lecture, but you can get 50,000 people to go to a college football game, he said in explaining the appeal of this novel approach.

President Hill recalled the unfortunate experience east Arkansas had six or seven years ago when the executives at Toyota announced that they had wanted to put a major new plant in Marion, Arkansas, but they found that literacy was so low in the area that they would have had to replace their manuals with pictorials. This was a major job creation opportunity lost, with illiteracy being one of the key factors in the decision.

The Delta Classic for Literacy is part of ABC’s innovative efforts to address the problem of illiteracy. In 2006 ABC made a commitment to contribute $100,000 to the Arkansas Literacy Councils (ALC) to start up literacy centers in 19 Arkansas counties that did not have them at that time. Since then ALC has received $55,000 and nine new literacy centers have been established.


Jennifer Oglesby Holman of ALC expressed great appreciation to President Hill and ABC for their help in expanding the network of literacy centers in the Delta. To start up a literacy center it costs about $5,000, but as Fitz Hill emphasized, that is a minimal investment that has an enormous return to the community.

ALC has opened or expanded nine literacy centers in the Delta with ABC’s help.

We would like to encourage our partners to help start up literacy centers in the remaining 10 Delta counties where they still do not have one (NOTE: Sadly, we recently heard from Ms. Oglesby Holman that Arkansas and Chicot counties in southeast Arkansas recently lost their literacy centers, although we certainly hope they can be started back up again):











NEED FOR MORE TUTORS: There is also a problem that about 150 students are on waiting lists to receive instruction at the literacy centers. ALC has many great tutors but they need many more. (ALC contact information is above in this message.)

We should all think about this reality: In 2012, there are areas in Arkansas where there are no literacy centers, and there are other areas where there are waiting lists to get in the literacy centers.


While the ALC and ABC pointed out the dimensions of the problems we face with illiteracy in the Delta, there is still significant constructive activity going on. ALC is a statewide nonprofit organization providing support for adult literacy programs, with 40 literacy councils serving adults in 60 Arkansas counties.

ALC’s work is done through volunteer tutors on a one-on-one basis, and all their activities are free.

The students are diverse, with 46% of them being in the ages from 25 to 44; 34% of the students are white, 28% are African American, and 30% are Hispanic. About half the students are male and about half are female.

Last year for the fiscal year ending on June 30, there were 858 adult students in the Delta, with 653 in the basic literacy program and 215 in the English as a second language program. There were 213 adults who learned to read or to read better and 215 adults who learned to write or write better. These are impressive results considering the very limited funding ALC has.

We should avoid becoming discouraged by the extent of the illiteracy challenges we face, because Ms. Oglesby Holman cited figures from the US Census showing long-term progress in high school education rates in Arkansas:

In 1980, 44% of Arkansans lacked a high school education.

By 1990, that percentage had fallen to 34%.

By 2000 the figure had decreased to 25%.

By 2010, 18% of Arkansans lacked a high school diploma.

In each county in the Arkansas Delta, the literacy rates and graduation levels are showing progress in each decade.

While the drop-out rate is still too high, those are clearly big leaps over every 10-year period.

Literacy councils typically offer tutoring at night because the adults need to work in the day. The students often bring their kids with them and the centers accommodate those needs. This again points out the importance of working with the entire family in the literacy efforts.

Oglesby Holman and Professor Owens of ASU both said that they embrace the reality that many young people communicate by texting. While there is a need to correct errors in grammar used in texting, they still deal with today’s communications modes as they are.

Professor Owens said that ASU’s graduate program includes classes in reading in the digital age and the “new literacies.” The technological world is changing and educational efforts have to change with them and “we can’t go back to the old work-sheet routine.”


Professor Owens comes from a background as a public school teacher. Among her earlier activities, she worked with the Barksdale Reading Institute out of the University of Mississippi. She emphasized that the linkage between economic development and education is vital. It is difficult to measure illiteracy because it is a self-reported measure–an adult has to say “I don’t know how to read.” Moreover, there is a great deal of gray area in deciding how much reading ability is needed to be considered literate.

Owens noted that if we look at the area where the Nissan plant is located in Mississippi, the illiteracy rate there is low. But in counties surrounding Madison County and Canton, Mississippi reach illiteracy rates from 15% to 25 or 30%. In Craighead County where Arkansas State University is based, illiteracy is relatively low, but nearby counties have illiteracy rates of 15% to 20%.

Owens said there is a “chicken and egg” debate about decisions regarding location of plants and the literacy levels of the local area. If a plant locates in a certain area, it can become an epi-center to help improve literacy for families in the area. The Delta Caucus board finds this comment insightful; in addition to looking at existing literacy rates, companies would do well to consider the commitment of communities to take major steps to improve literacy rates. We can look to the example of Nucor Yamato Steel in Blytheville, Arkansas, which has for many years contributed to the job training and long-term educational improvements of their employees and the local community.

Professor Owens has done extensive research on the impact of poverty on learning abilities of children. In conducting interviews with teachers who worked in high poverty areas, she found that the teachers often said they could do a better job if the children’s behavior were different. At first she had thought it was a smug remark and they were blaming the kids for the low literacy levels. But as she progressed in the research, it became clear that one of the ways that poverty impacts children is that when they lead insecure lives–such as not knowing where they will be that night, if mom doesn’t pay the rent and they have to leave on the fly in the middle of the night–their ability to learn suffers.

One teacher poignantly said, “I’m trying to teach them to read, and they are trying to survive.”

Neurological studies made possible by brain imaging systems demonstrated that children who live in unsafe neighborhoods and are surrounded by violence have behavior resembling ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity). One teacher said that if her school were a middle class school, half of the children would be on Ritalin. The students can’t tell you what the teacher is saying at the front of the room, but they know everything that is going on immediately around them because they are trying to survive.

National statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity affects 3 percent to 5 percent of the children in public education classrooms. Clearly in unsafe, distressed neighborhoods the percentages can be far higher than the national average. Finding the best methods to provide a quality education for these students is a challenging task requiring partnership of parents, school staff and the medical community, according to NIMH.

As a public school teacher, Ms. Owens had some comments about Charter Schools and KIPP schools. She said these schools are doing some very good activities, and the Teach for America program is marvelous and has a missionary zeal that can’t be beaten. However, she said that Charter Schools and KIPP schools cannot be the answer for all students. Children do not fill out applications to get into KIPP schools, but have to rely on their parents to do so. In counties with an illiteracy rate of up to 30%, many parents cannot negotiate the waters of when the applications are due and what the consequences of missing the deadlines are.

Owens pointed out that half of the battle is getting into these schools, and once admitted the other half is to stay in them. There are many rules for children and parents and if you break the rules you will be asked to leave. Children with certain disabilities would not be allowed to go to a KIPP school because they would not put up with that behavior; and where will children in those conditions go? They will go to public schools where the test scores are lowered because the more fortunately situated students went to KIPP and charter schools. Those public schools will lose funding and be absorbed by another poor functioning school. These dynamics are having an impact on areas of the country that can least afford further experimentation in the public schools. Ms. Owens said she was making these comments from her background as a public school teacher and calling for a clear focus on the real issues involved in improving the educational system.

At ASU, Owens and her colleagues re-designed the master’s of reading program to incorporate a year-long practicum experience. Students come to ASU from all over the Delta and the university works with students in the public schools. ASU implemented an Ed.S program in reading. The Education Specialist with a Major in Reading Degree provides an opportunity for teachers who already have a master’s degree to engage in further studies in the area of reading. The program requires 33-36 credit hours with all candidates completing a thesis. The Ed.S. Reading program has two tracks:

Track 1- Literacy Leadership: Advanced Perspectives is designed for candidates who have a Master’s Degree in Education with a major in Reading and seek further credentials and expertise as literacy leaders.

Track 2 - Literacy Leadership: Professional Practice is designed for candidates who have a Master’s Degree in another educational field. Candidates in Track 2 are required to take Praxis II: Reading Specialist, test #0300, as required by the Arkansas Department of Education for the Reading Specialist Licensure Endorsement.

Literacy leaders can become community advocates, and the goal is to help ASU become a clearing house to send graduate students to work with organizations like those on the literacy panel at the May 4 session. They work in fields like adult literacy, English as a second language, helping children struggling to read, and other activities. Organizations involved include faith-based groups, community centers, literacy councils and others involved in developing literacy leaders.

Common core standards have situated literacy as tthe common denominator in all content areas K-12. For Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), it’s crucial to understand the math, but it’s also essential to be able to communicate how you found your answer and communicate your ideas, to be a producer and not just a consumer of reading and literacy, Owens said.

There also some discussions–and Owens stressed that these are only in the preliminary and unofficial stages–of looking at the possibility of a Ph. D. in literacy studies, which will incorporate what is already being done in the the graduate program and expand it to an inter-disciplinary approach.

BACKGROUND ON THE COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS: The Common Core State Standards initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and other experts to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our students for college and the workforce.

These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education so they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit- bearing academic college courses and in the workforce. They are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world. The new learning standards stress conceptual understanding and application. They are internationally benchmarked to guarantee our students are competitive in the emerging global marketplace.

The Arkansas State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards in July 2010. The goals of the program are to fully prepare students for the future so that the state will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.


Save the Children is the world’s leading nonprofit organization working for children in the United Sates and more than 100 countries across the globe. Save the Children has worked in the most impoverished communties in the USA since 1932 and has programs in 18 states, and they work in some capacity in disaster response or policy change in 26 states. Their major activities include literacy, physical activities, nutrition, during the school day, after school and summer programs, and other work aimed at combating the long-term impact of poverty.

Literacy is the main priority in Save the Children’s education efforts. Mississippi’s Deputy Director Maxwell emphasized that children from poor families are falling behind in language and literacy. Save the Children partners with communities in rural areas beginning with the youngest children to increase literacy activities and development of access to developmentally appropriate books.

In Mississippi Save the Children has been working for 40 years with 17 partnerships in Bolivar, Yazoo, Quitman, Chickasaw, Tallahatchie, Jefferson Davis, Amitt, Marion and Wilkinson counties. Mississippi partners were among the first in the organization’s model literacy program.

Save the Children started partnerships with community-based organizations like the Bonanza Buying Center and National Council of Negro Women. In the early 1990s Save the Children began such programs as community service projects, job shadowing, youth programs, pairing youth with adult sponsors, and they have received support from such leading Mississippi figures as Gov. Haley Barbour, Attorney General Jim Hood, Chairman Cecil Brown and others.

Ms. Maxwell pointed out that low-income children are starting school about 18 months behind their more affluent peers. 60% of low-income families do not have books in their homes. In many rural areas the school library is the only place where children can get access to books.

Over half of low-income fourth graders score blow the basis level assessment on national literacy test, as compared to one in five of more affluent children. In Mississippi, 31% of children live in poverty or in families making less than $22,000 a year.

In addressing these issues, Save the Children conducts a wide range of activities including support for increased reading achievement, listening to books read aloud, fluency building support, vocabulary and phonics enhancement. The programs focus on high-poverty rural areas, where children are three times more likely to have difficulty speaking proper English and three times more likely to drop out of high school.

The issues in rural areas are worsened by the lack of supplemental educational resources and inadequate infrastructure. In many cases the school is the only educational institution and is often struggling to meet their teaching objectives. Lower income children are more likely to live in single-parent households and are less likelty to have completed high school. Unlike affluent people, poor rural families often do not have the expendable income to use for tutoring, summer programs or other educational activities.

For single parent households, they frequently have to juggle work commitments, after-school commitments, and some work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Maxwell emphasized that the best way to improve chances for poor children is to reach them early–85% of a child’s brain growth takes place in the first three years. In 2006, Save the Children started early steps to school success program designed to reach the youngest children and deliver high-quality early childhood development services. This program led to strong results: in the 2010-2011 school year, the school-based literacy program served more than 16,600 children. Almost 70% showed improvement after participating beyound what is expected if they only received standard classroom instruction. This progress equated to an additional five months of school.

The percentage of children reading at or above grade level more than doubled from the beginning of the school year to the end.

In addition, at-risk toddlers in early childhood development programs scored at or above the national average on language and literacy tests.

Two thirds of the children showed gains in reading.

Ms. Maxwell pointed out Save the Children’s strong budgetary policies, including corporate and individual sponsors, and their very impressive match of nearly one to one. Their focus is on local sustainability for economic development in rural communities, and they are hiring six people or in some cases up to 14 or 15 people in places that usually don’t have many job opportunities.

Three fourths of Save the Children’s expenditures in Mississippi are in the form of sub-grants that are given directly to their parent schools.

Maxwell emphasized that high poverty communities have hopes that are no different than others and their commitments to a strong America are just as deep, but we just need to make the sound investments needed to help the region toward a better future. She said Save the Children is always interested in working with other organizations that help children, and she joined Amy Fecher, Arkansas’ Save the Children director, in thanking the Delta Regional Authority for being one of their strongest partners in the region.