One neighboring county has implemented a program that has helped their public school system go from a failing grade to passing and has been a way for the community to come together.
And one of the founders behind that program believes many of the ideas that have come out of the innovative approach to education could serve as a model for other Delta counties, including Coahoma County.
Jaby Denton was born and raised in Marks in neighboring Quitman County and spent much of his life in a county that is considered one of the poorest in Mississippi. In 1999, he and his family moved to Oxford for his daughter’s education.
But in 2014, Denton came back home to live.
“I love the Delta and I love Marks and I love Quitman County,” Denton said during an appearance at the Clarksdale Rotary Club on Dec. 4.
A farmer all of his life, Denton wanted to give back to his community and he became involved with the Marks Youth Outreach program, mainly the Marks 49ers youth football team.
But he soon discovered a bigger problem when he would gather the team and asked how many of them had read about their game in that week’s newspaper.
“I would get these boys, 12 years old or so, and they could not read. They could not read a simple article in the newspaper,” he said.
At the same time, the kids were not only struggling in school, but there were disciplinary issues. Denton was ready to give up.
“I realized I was not making any headway. The kids were still having problems,” he said.
Denton said he called his friend Lance Reed, who owns the Chick-Fil-A in Oxford, and told him, “I’m done. I’m giving up. I’ve tried, I’ve failed, I’m done.”
But Reed refused to take that answer and instead put Denton in touch with Jason Stoker, who was executive director of the Reclaimed Project in Starkville. The ministry had previously focused its efforts on village sustainability in Africa, but Stoker soon found the poverty-stricken areas of the Delta were similar to what he saw during his visits to Africa.
Denton arranged for Stoker to come to Marks and, once there, they were able to meet with Dr. Evelyn Jossell, the superintendent of the Quitman County School District.
“We asked, ‘What can our ministry do to help Quitman County,’” Denton said.
Jossell’s answer was simple and numbered just three items: 1. We need teachers; 2. We need housing for those teachers; and 3.) We need Jesus.
“We made a commitment to Dr. Jossell to do it,” Denton said.
In its first year, Reclaimed helped bring in two teachers. Now in its third year, there are eight additional instructors teaching in the public school system.
While the school district pays the teachers’ salaries, Stoker’s group has renovated the old Stone’s Drug Store, an 8,000-square-foot building in downtown Marks and turned it into The Village Center. In exchange for a two-year commitment, the teachers are allowed to live in The Village rent-free.
In the upstairs area, there are seven private apartments that share a living room, kitchen and laundry area. The downstairs has been turned into an open area where community events can be held.
The response has been great, Denton said, as the teachers are coming from all across the country.
“All of a sudden, it’s becoming kind of cool for these young teachers to come to Marks and Quitman County,” he said. “These are some phenomenal teachers. They don’t just want to teach. They want to get into the lives of these kids… and the school district has just seen a dramatic turnaround.”
Quitman County has gone from being an F district to a C and B level and even approaching the A recognition with its elementary students.
“I’m so proud of what we’re doing,” he said.
What he’s most pleased with is in how the community is starting to come together.
The only real agenda? Getting to know each other.
“If you’re waiting for the federal government to come in and save Quitman County, it isn’t going to happen. If you’re waiting for the state of Mississippi to come in and resurrect Quitman County, it’s not going to happen. If you’re waiting for the county supervisors, the mayors and councils to change, it ain’t going to happen.
“The only way it’s going to happen is for the people. The people have to come together and be determined that we’re going to make something out of this.”
Denton, who is now a board member of the Reclaimed Project, said it is his personal goal to bring the 79 churches that serve 7,000 Quitman County residents together. And he realizes it will not be an easy task.
“One of the most divided areas in this country and in the Mississippi Delta and, in particular, Quitman County, is the churches,” Denton said. “The biggest walls are these churches. You don’t let anybody in and you don’t let anybody out.”
But there has been progress.
One example of the community coming together was the erection of a $50,000 playground at the site of the old Marks High School. For three bone-chilling days last December, about 30 people came together to build that playground.
Denton said it is the hope of the Reclaimed ministry to provide a model for other Delta communities.
“We’re the guinea pig. We’re doing some things right and some things wrong, but we’re learning what works,” he said.
Denton said Coahoma County is blessed in that it has many resources that Quitman County doesn’t.
“I’m excited about what we’re doing in Marks and what we can and will do, not just for the Delta, but for the state of Mississippi as a whole,” Denton said. “It’s all about us coming together.”