Mississippi Faith-Based School Trains Up Young Men Ready to Work and Succeed
To bring new opportunity to the Mississippi Delta, a father and educator started a school for young men. Leaders nationwide are taking notes on his success story.
This past week, high school principal T. Mac Howard and his wife Heather traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive an award on behalf of their school. The readers of WORLD Magazine had chosen Delta Streets Academy of Greenwood, Miss. as winner of the 12th Annual Hope Award for Effective Compassion.
The recognition comes five years after Howard took a leap of faith. Since 2008, he and his family have been on a mission. They had moved to the Mississippi Delta, a region facing America’s highest poverty rate. Howard had a steady job at Greenwood High School. With education outcomes among the lowest nationwide, he saw the need for Greenwood’s students to achieve higher — particularly young men.
Frustrated by the public school system, Howard gathered supporters to launch Delta Streets Academy in 2012. The all-male school has expanded to now serve 55 black and Hispanic high school students.
Several of their graduates have recently won college scholarships. Yet, echoing ideas often voiced by author and TV host Mike Rowe, the school also provides means for students to succeed apart from college.
Following the November 16 award event at The Heritage Foundation on Capitol Hill, principal T. Mac Howard shared with The Stream how he helps his students discover a bigger vision for their lives.
Tell us about your family’s move from Mississippi’s capital city to Greenwood.
T. Mac Howard: I knew I wanted to go to the Delta, but I didn’t really have a preference as to what town. I moved to Greenwood to teach and coach. I was teaching six periods of math classes, then coaching football and baseball. That was what got me to Greenwood initially.
It was what I imagined it would be: long days, some incidents in class, and students often not doing the work I assigned. There were rough days where I’d have to send students out of class. If we had issues in class, oftentimes those issues didn’t get resolved. When leadership doesn’t back you up, you have to resolve issues alone. It was dysfunctional.
What burnt me out the fastest was the athletics side of things. For me personally, I just wasn’t going to be able to emotionally, mentally and physically grind it out for 25 years.
As you set out to start a private school, why did you design it for young men?
Howard: During my first year at Greenwood High, one of the six periods I taught was Pre-Algebra. It was the lowest-level math class you could take and there were 25 students. Three of them were girls—all pregnant—and the rest of them were young men, none of whom graduated.
If you go to the upper-level classes like AP Calculus or Trigonometry, you’d find 25 students with 23 of them young women. The two young men likely had a dad who was on the City Council. So I saw a major lack of male leadership.
We started Delta Streets Academy as an all-boys school. That helps tremendously. We’re able to talk about things that otherwise we might not be able to address if you had females there. You can’t get real about some topics in a group setting.
Everything we do is geared towards building young men. Once they pass freshman year, all our students take a construction class. Not that girls couldn’t take that class, but if you look at the construction field males are in the majority. We can gear our classes towards what these guys would possibly be doing in the future.
Do you see college as the goal for students, or is there another success metric?
Howard: Going after a trade job is never frowned upon. But if they’re capable of going to college, we encourage them to do that. The fact is, lower unemployment has been linked to having a college degree.
If they’re at a place where, academically they’re not working as hard as they need to be, we would encourage them to go to a junior college to learn a trade. Two or three years later, after working, they might realize, OK, I want to go back to college. Then they would take steps to prepare.
We’re not opposed to our guys not going to college, as long as they graduate and are doing something productive. Next year, we’ll have 16 young men graduating. If 12 of them went to college and four of them go to work, that would be a win for us.
How does the trend towards single-parent households play into outcomes you see with your students?
Howard: Granted, we are a small microcosm. With our best students, both parents are in the home. It makes sense. Now we have some really sharp students that come from single-parent homes, they might even live with their grandmother. But the students having the hardest time academically come from single-parent homes.
In a roundabout way, we fill some of that gap. The parents love that we help discipline their children. We grind it out with the guys. If they’re not doing what they’re supposed to at school, we don’t suspend kids for a couple days. Instead, they stay at school — even until 7pm doing discipline time.
It helps the mom or grandmother out in some small way. Being able to speak truth as a male is something our parents appreciate. Just having male role models around is a win for their sons.
Why did you start a high school with biblical principles at the center?
Howard: Similar to the principal who runs Cornerstone Schools here in Washington, D.C., it doesn’t really make sense any other way for what we’re doing. If we’re going to spend this much money educating these guys, we need them to at least understand why we’re educating them. That’s ultimately to make sure they understand who Jesus is, how awesome He is and the hope that He can bring.
You can’t be vocal about your faith in a public classroom. If a student asked me, I’d talk about my personal faith and how it’s radically changed who I am and what I do. With the athletes, after practice you’re able to talk to them about it and invite them to a Bible study. But there are limits.
The guys don’t have to be Christian to come to Delta Streets Academy; the majority of them unfortunately are not. Even if they leave and they’re not professing Christians, they would be able to share the gospel with you — tell you what it is and how it can affect them. We all have a mission. Being created in God’s image, I truly believe you have to know Him to fulfill your mission.
When it comes to bridging the racial divide, what approach do you take?
Howard: Though it’s not really part of our objectives, it happens as a byproduct. The majority of our volunteers and donors are white. Unfortunately, at this time, our staff is all white as well. That’s not something I’m proud of and we’re working on it.
In this context, these young men coming from our community of color are able to see another race reaching out, helping out and loving them. Personally, our juniors and seniors don’t see me as a white guy. They just see me as Coach Howard. Certainly other people in South Greenwood see me as a white guy.
The same goes for me. When I look at our seniors, I don’t see two young black men. I see two seniors. In building relationships, it breaks down the barriers.
What have you learned working in this community that you wish more Americans knew?
Howard: One thing I came in very naïve about is thinking that some families didn’t care about their young men. That’s totally false. They love their young men. It’s just that they show it differently.
How a ninth grader’s mom shows him love in this community looks radically different than how my mom and dad would show me love. It’s not that these young men’s moms or dads or grandmothers don’t love them.
How has Delta Streets Academy changed over the past five years?
It’s always evolving. The students we originally attracted were the guys that were in that lower-level Pre-Algebra class. That was because I was connected and in the neighborhood. We’re starting to attract students whose parents are looking for better opportunity. Our students look a lot different than those first 14 who enrolled in 2012. Parents are catching the vision and getting their guys plugged in.
We just added a soccer team. Soccer is big in the Hispanic community, and we now have six Hispanic students in our school. Those are some of the changes we’re seeing.
Watch a short video on Delta Streets Academy featuring principal T. Mac Howard, produced by The Daily Signal: