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Delta Streets Academy Teaches Equal Doses of Grit and Jesus

Non-profit Mississippi school provides life skills to young men and grows to their highest rate of student admission during COVID.

Bethany Starin

When Thomas McMillin Howard started an after-school program for three students in Greenwood, Mississippi, he never expected to establish Delta Streets Academy (DSA) two years later and have 300 at-risk students attend.

“Our aim is to give these guys hope. There is a better way than the system they have been involved in up to this point, and the Gospel gives hope. With hope, that gives you motivation,” Howard said, his eyes misty with tears, during a video interview.

Howard, known as “T. Mac” to the team and students, says a college internship in New Orleans sent him on a career path of working with at-risk students to learn life skills to succeed. Fresh out of college, he scored a dual head coach/math teacher job at Greenwood High School and began searching for a way to do ministry on the side. In August 2010, he launched a one-man band after-school program and three students turned into 12 5th and 6th graders by the end of the year. The next summer, 40 came to his summer program and then the after-school program that followed.

“The crazy thing is the kids would not go to school one day, but they would come to us—which was a problem, so we realized something had to be done differently. At that point we decided to start the non-profit school,” Howard said.

What’s unique about DSA is that while Howard is white, his ministry has been reflective of the Mississippi neighborhoods he worked in: black, underprivileged youths. During his years on staff at the high school, Howard said he noticed the needs for the young men specifically. To date, DSA students have been mostly black and exclusively male—but that’s been changing, Howard said.

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“Right now in Greenwood, you either go to the black school or white school. If you had told me seven years ago that our school would be 25 percent hispanic and 75 percent black, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Howard said. “I would love one day to racially have the makeup of DSA be black students, hispanic students, white students—a better picture of our society in general and where conversations can happen.”

Currently, 85 students are enrolled at DSA and Howard is head of the school. When the pandemic hit, the teachers worked twice as hard, Howard said, using every bit of space so students could spread out and be 6 feet apart, as well as creating virtual options. Strangely enough, the pandemic brought students to DSA, Howard said.

“We had to put a cap on our enrollment,” Howard said, adding that when the local public schools went virtual, many families were trying to jump ship. “Our enrollment is the highest it has ever been, and we have not seen a dip in giving,” Howard said. The school received a PPP loan that helped tremendously, as well, he said.

The staff also didn’t suffer cases of COVID-19 until the first week of December, when four staff tested positive for COVID, including Howard. The staff quarantined, and all classes are currently virtual until the proper quarantine time passes.

Howard says he recently had a mid-life crisis about the way they were doing school generally, which led the staff to continue with a focused, faith-centered, and academic approach.

“When we say academics, people go right to geometry and Shakespeare, and there are a lot of successful people in Greenwood who can’t quote Shakespeare,” Howard said. “While the academic subjects are all important, we are trying to ultimately equip these guys with a mindset of a good work ethic, the ability to compete with their peers, and whatever they decide to do in life—equip them to do it and do it well.”

Howard says they are trying to teach these students grit and faith in Jesus. “We are trying to equip these guys with the mindset that whatever you start, you finish it and do whatever it takes to do the task—grit. It’s hard to teach grit, and one of the best ways to teach it is to model it.”

In 2020, DSA hired James Cheatham as their campus pastor, who meets bimonthly with each student and teaches daily devotionals.

“This is a very hard, stressful time on a young man’s life, so if I help in any way to show them who they can lean on, which is ultimately Jesus Christ, then hopefully their transition into adulthood would be a much easier,” said Jim Osborn, former board of directors member for DSA, during a video interview.

Athletics are a big part of DSA with a well-funded football team, basketball team, and most recently, a soccer team. In addition to other programs and classes, they have a drum line and a carpentry class for each 10th and 11th grader, exposing them to working with their hands. Currently, DSA is looking to expand their arts program, Howard said.

A stand-out graduate from the last three years is a black student who came to DSA as 10th grader, struggling academically and grappling with a difficult home life. After evaluation, Howard said the academic staff decided to shift, assisting him in working towards his GED instead of his high school diploma.

“We figured out his passion was for food and cooking. We got him plugged in with our kitchen manager and once he finished his GED, he went to the local community college and got a culinary arts degree,” Howard said.

The community at DSA connected the graduate with friends, a church, and something that’s become a huge passion of his: cycling. “He lost something like 150 pounds and he is talking about starting his own cycling club right there in Greenwood,” Howard said. “He volunteers at DSA now, and we are extremely proud of him and grateful that he continues to strive to give back to the community and do something he enjoys. It is the perfect storm.”

The attrition rate is something the team at Delta Street continues to work on, Howard said. “A handful of guys tap out and say, ‘This isn’t for me.’ It is just culture shock to be held accountable for things that are not a big deal in their mind.”

Howard said they keep an open-enrollment policy and the staff always communicates that they are welcome at future sporting events. “They can always reach back out to us if they need any help finding a job or anything else,” Howard says. “Just because they didn’t finish doesn’t mean there isn’t still hope and opportunity.”

Dominick Brown, a graduate of DSA, encouraged other students to consider attending DSA during an online video interview. “If you want a bigger faith in God, if you want to know who God is, come to this school,” he said. “If you want your academics to become better, come to this school. If you want to learn life lessons, come to this school. If you want to have that one-on-one connection with your teachers, come to this school. If you want to make lasting friendships, come to this school—because this is where it’s all at.”

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