A Place Apart

By Lawrence Hardy

Red-faced and perspiring, Corey Truett strains to be heard.

"Students, hang in there with me," he implores the high school seniors, his voice hoarse and cracking. "I only have a few minutes to help get you where you want to go."

A church youth leader, Truett does these college and career presentations on the side, but he seems to put his whole heart -- and lungs -- into them. Yet here in the auditorium of Humphreys County High School, in the heart of the rural Mississippi Delta, he's having mixed success.

Students in the front rows are listening and taking notes. Many of those behind them are not: They talk and laugh, draw pictures, and play cards. They're seniors behaving badly on a balmy Tuesday afternoon -- hardly news to anyone who's been around a high school. But here in Belzoni, Miss., there's no time to clown around, if the students only knew it. They have few opportunities to escape the poverty that makes this cotton and catfish farming county one of the poorest in America, and Truett is offering an escape route now.

In places like Humphreys County, where the median household income is $20,600 and 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line, "people with the most options leave first," says Marty Strange, policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust. "And they leave behind an increasingly distressed population."

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