The diagonal line in Arkansas separating academic and economic strivers from those less likely to make the grade — and then land a decent job — runs roughly from Texarkana in the southwest to Blytheville in northeast. “The wealthiest people live above that line,” said Dr. James Jennings, a history professor and education department chairman at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.
He had drawn that line in 2006, based on his first-hand and empirical knowledge of parents, students, teachers, schools and the long-haul impact of unabated poverty in the 41 Arkansas counties that are part of the Mississippi Delta, an area below that diagonal line.
“We’re talking places where only 38 percent of the population, age 25 and older, has graduated high school. Six percent of the people, 25 and older, graduated college. Imagine a society where 6 percent of the people have college degrees,” Jennings said. “Where 90 percent to 100 percent of children in some schools are on free lunch. It’s an extreme poverty.”
With that understanding — and research on narrowing the achievement gap that he began conducting as a Vanderbilt University doctoral student — Jennings in 2007 piloted a project that has been measuring double-digit increases in student academic performance. Above the Line, Jennings’ instructional model, started as a three-week summer session for 25 of the lowest-performing third-graders in Forrest City, Ark. Hendrix undergraduates taught them reading, writing and arithmetic. In summer 2008, another group of Forrest City third-graders was enrolled. For the 2009-10 school year, third-graders in Junction City were added to program, which also began tweaking its classroom teachers’ instructional methods. Junction City fourth graders, third and fourth graders from El Dorado, Ark., and students from one middle school each in Forrest City and Little Rock were added in 2010-11.
With the rich, middle-class and poor counted among its 194,000 residents, the state capital officially sits in the Delta. Cloverdale Middle School, Little Rock’s Above the Line research site “is at the very bottom in terms of test scores. It has a 91 percent poverty rate, it’s in a high-crime area. … People write off that school and those kids as failures,” but unfairly so, says Jennings.
Jennings is excited about what Above the Line’s success might mean for the tri-state region of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as high-poverty schools nationwide. He earned a bachelor’s in education from Northwestern University in 1977, a master’s in education from the University of Arkansas in 1983 and a doctorate from Vanderbilt in 1992.
So far, the 3-year-old, $75,000 “Odyssey Professorship” grant awarded to Jennings — given by Hendrix in 2009 — has shown a spike from 21 percent to 58 percent on Above the Line’s pre- and post-tests of academic proficiency among the students who were tracked. The performance of middle-school students on standardized state tests has been less steady. For example, from seventh to eighth grade — 2010 to 2011 — the targeted Little Rock students increased their proficiency in literacy from 32 percent to 44 percent. Their math proficiency fell. Meanwhile, during the same period, the Forrest City middle schoolers showed improvement in math proficiency, from 42 percent to 54 percent. Their literacy proficiency, however, dropped from 53 percent to 50 percent. (Some data, which will be updated with the upcoming release of Arkansas’ latest standardized test scores, are available at www.abovethelineproject.org)
“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on so we can stabilize those numbers,” said a still optimistic Jennings, author of “Level Five Culture: High-Poverty, High-Performing Schools in the Lower Mississippi Delta Region.” The research paper appeared in the spring 2010 edition of Teaching Children of Poverty, an online research journal from Francis Marion University’s Center of Excellence to Prepare Teachers of Children of Poverty.
Above the Line’s groundbreaking cornerstone is its testing of elementary students’ competency in literacy and math and middle-school students’ proficiency in literacy, math and science at the start of the school year. Those tests are repeated at six-week intervals, with ongoing instruction tailored to address deficiencies reflected in the test results. Other key components are rewards-based efforts to rein in unruly and distressed students, encourage participation of parents who sometimes were academic underachievers themselves, and expose students to life outside, say, the confines of their impoverished farming communities.
“We take them to restaurants, where you have [a] menu, a waiter, and order off the menu, an experience that they had never had,” Jennings said.
He continued, elaborating on the rewards-based learning: “Let’s say a student is having trouble finding the main idea in a paragraph. We tell the kids, ‘If you can master this, getting 80 percent of the questions right, we’ll give you a gift certificate to McDonald’s.’ Or, ‘Johnnie, if you consistently improve, move from a C to a low A, we’re going to give you a trophy.’ We’re starting with extrinsic awards and moving toward the intrinsic rewards.”
“After the first week,” he added, “some of the students, who’d been written off as un-teachable, didn’t need the rewards.”
Arika Smith, a 2011 early childhood graduate of Hendrix, witnessed that transformation as one of the summertime instructors. She also observed an initial skepticism of Above the Line from some Delta residents. “Some are friendly. Some are closed off, like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Being stuck in a place where there’s only a Wal-Mart, a few fast-food places, a clothing store, where things are spread out across a lot of land and people are walking down the highway … I won’t call it a helplessness, but …” Her voice trails off. “I believe all kids can learn. I saw that happen.”
“We were so interested, after that first summer, in how to keep this thing going. Every week, there was a kind of evolution in how we saw the school, saw the town we were in, saw the students and also their parents,” Nathan Thomas says. Thomas, a 2010 sociology and anthropology graduate, taught English during the summer sessions.
Thomas was in New Delhi, India, one of four international cities whose school constructs he’s studying as a year-long Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellow. “Hopefully, I’ll take what I find … back home to America,” he said. As part of the fellowship, Thomas also visited schools in Australia, Finland and South Africa.
“There’s a critical need. When whole segments of the population are not prepared, visualize a large majority of them on some form of public assistance, in a low-wage job or prison. In some of these areas of the Delta, that’s what we’re ending up with. Once you can read and write effectively, that opens the door to so many opportunities,” Jennings says.