Friday, September 12, 2008

Delta Views Sept. 12

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September 12, 2008

Important Visitors To The Delta

By Pete Johnson

Once every two years, the Delta Regional Authority brings a group of key congressional staff members to our region during Congress' August recess. Last month, 25 staff members flew from Washington to Little Rock, where they had lunch at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion and visited the Clinton Presidential Center. They then climbed aboard a chartered bus to see the Delta, rolling across east Arkansas and through Memphis on that first day before spending the night in Tunica, Miss.

On the second day, they visited historic Helena-West Helena, Ark., on the banks of the Mississippi River before making the short trip to Clarksdale, Miss., for a barbecue lunch at the Hopson Plantation and an afternoon of briefings at the DRA headquarters in downtown Clarksdale. They saw our offices, met with the DRA staff, got a sense of what we do on a daily basis and even heard a presentation on the earthquake threat much of the region faces from the New Madrid Fault. The second night was spent at the gorgeous Alluvian Hotel in downtown Greenwood, Miss.

On the third day, the congressional staff members worked their way from Greenwood to Jackson to New Orleans, spending the night in the Crescent City and hearing the plans for the revitalization of that city's riverfront. The staffers flew back to Washington from New Orleans. We wanted them to learn not only of the problems we face in the Delta but also the promise this region holds. There were two things I particularly wanted them to see -- the Viking Range Corp. facilities in Greenwood and the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School in Helena-West Helena. They needed to see Viking because it's proof that Delta residents can do cutting-edge work, making products that are sought after by the world's richest people. And they needed to see KIPP because it's proof that the Delta's children can learn as well or better than children anywhere in the nation if the educational system is structured properly. Both Viking and KIPP do things a little differently and should serve as models for businesses and schools across our region.

Viking came into existence in the 1980s when Fred Carl, a fourth-generation building contractor, was building a home for himself and couldn't find a range he liked. His wife, Margaret, loved her mother's Chambers stove, but Chambers products were no longer produced. Fred looked at various restaurant ranges but decided a commercial range would be unwieldy and unsafe in his home. After weeks at the drawing board, Fred came up with his own design. He discovered, however, that commercial range manufacturers had no interest. He finally found a small company in southern California that would produce the first Viking range. Two years of trial and error led to Viking ranges receiving an American Gas Association certification in late 1986. The first ranges where shipped in January 1987. Word of mouth led to immediate consumer demand. By 1989, Viking ranges were being produced in Greenwood, the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

By the end of the next decade, Viking was operating three manufacturing facilities in Greenwood. By 1996, the Viking product line had grown to include convection ranges, dishwashers and refrigeration equipment. Outdoor products were added the following year. In 1999, the product line included the first professional-style, self-cleaning gas ranges. The range of products expanded to sealed burner gas ranges, wine cellars, cookware and cutlery in 2002. Blenders, mixers, companion ranges and microwaves were made part of the mix the next year.

Through it all, the company stayed true to its Delta roots. A Viking publication puts it this way: "The Viking range was dreamed up in Greenwood. And the people of Greenwood believed in it. Their encouragement and elbow grease have helped push Viking to where it is today. These are Viking people, and they are our greatest asset. ... People actually know their neighbors -- next door and three streets over. They're accustomed to pulling together to get things done. And you'll encounter that same friendly attitude throughout Viking. Goals are shared and ideas encouraged on all levels. Problems are solved and successes celebrated. Together. The finest kitchen in the world doesn't amount to much unless it's filled with your family and friends. Viking applies this same philosophy to our offices and factory floors."

Viking is a model company in many ways. Wellness programs are offered for employees. The company partners with area colleges to make it easier for employees to earn degrees. Viking also is strongly involved in community affairs. After experimenting with several Japanese manufacturing techniques, Viking decided to adopt most aspects of the Toyota production system. If there is a problem, everyone on the line is aware. The problem is solved immediately on the plant floor. Plant managers work on the floor, and every member of the team is involved in solving the problems.

As for KIPP, the school has just begun its seventh year with the initial class of fifth-grade students now in the 11th grade. During their years in middle school, these students moved from the 29th to the 91st percentile in math on achievement tests and from the 29th to the 84th percentile in language. The student body is 94 percent black with 85 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch rates. KIPP is a prime example that all students can learn when placed in the right educational environment. KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program, is part of a national network of college-preparatory public schools. More than 80 percent of KIPP students nationwide are from low-income families. More than 90 percent of the students nationwide are black or Hispanic.

There's a consistent focus at the school on measuring and reporting achievement results. KIPP also is committed to getting its students to college. KIPP students arrive at school by 7:25 a.m. Monday through Friday. They remain at school until 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 4 p.m. each Friday. On many Saturdays, the students report at 9:15 a.m. and stay until 1:05 p.m.

As Little Rock journalist Kane Webb recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "In a state under court order to fix its public schools, there aren't many examples of educational excellence. But because KIPP schools are charter schools, they operate free of the bureaucratic baloney that chokes the creativity out of so many traditional public schools and their teachers. And Delta College Prep is a different kind of charter school. You notice it right off. World map-sized posters of students' test scores decorate the hallways -- the way you would see a 'Go Team!' banner at a public high school. ... There's a dress code and detailed instructions about how to behave in class, right down to when to raise your hand. Parents and students and teachers all have to sign a 'Commitment to Excellence form' outlining life at Delta College Prep."

KIPP and Viking -- proof for these congressional staffers than when the right systems are in place in the Delta, we can educate our students in world-class schools and provide a world-class workforce for businesses.

Pete Johnson of Clarksdale, Miss., is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. He was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2001.

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