Teaching a way out of poverty on the Mississippi Delta -- with tough love

(CBS News) In this election year, we've been hearing a lot about the middle class and the wealthy -- but not much about the 15 percent of Americans who live in poverty. It is worst in Mississippi, where the poverty rate is 22 percent. CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts met a man there who is trying to show young folks the way out.

At Quitman County High School in Marks, Miss., where nearly half the students live in poverty, the heat is out -- again.

But they do have 62-year old Carl Palmer. He was four years into retirement when the district asked him to take over the school. This is his first year as a principal.

"I want to see them come out of poverty. I want to see the students excel," Palmer said.

The hardest part of his job? "Telling students no on some things," Palmer said. "I'd like to tell them yes. ... Sometimes we just don't have the resources."

The last manufacturing jobs left Marks when the soybean plant shuttered four years ago. Half of the people are unemployed and four out of 10 never finished high school. Palmer says only 15 percent of his current students will go on to college. Compare that to 40 percent of Palmer's own Mississippi classmates who went on to college in 1967.

"The black community has gotten complacent," Palmer said. "They want to say we've reached where we ought to be. And these kids and the young parents raising them don't understand: We have not reached where we out to be at this point."

Pitts: "So in the Mississippi of 1967 racism and Jim Crow was the enemy. What's the enemy now to these children?"

Palmer: "We're the enemy, ourselves, because we aren't pushing ourselves enough and we want to make money fast, drugs, gang affiliations all of that is our enemy."

Palmer is always roaming the hallways. He's hired teachers that support his no-excuses, high expectations philosophy. He has also become a strong father figure in an area where few exist.

Seventeen-year-old junior Jamarkus Watson is like most of the students at Quitman -- his family has little money and he comes from a single-parent home. But Watson is a straight-"A" student. He calls Palmer "an inspiration."

"What's different about you that makes you want to go to college?" Pitts asked Watson.

"I have my head screwed on right."

"And what happens here to a kid here if they get distracted?"

"They basically fail."

"In school or in life?"

"In both."

Palmer is just seven months into his new job and knows progress will not come without struggle.

"I think kids have to have what I call the 'in spite of' theory," Palmer said. "In spite of where I come from ... there is a world out there that you can become a part of if you simply apply yourself.

Palmer's goal: Teaching the way to break the cycle of poverty, which for many along the Mississippi Delta remains a dream deferred.

  • Byron Pitts

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