SUNFLOWER — The Freedom Summer Collegiate Program is a four-week summer program that trains master’s and doctoral candidates to teach high school students in poor communities.

In turn, the program helps students improve their ACT scores while giving them an opportunity to receive college credit and get a small taste of the college experience. The ACT is a standardized test for high school students that measures their college readiness.

“I think at this moment in history, it’s very inspiring to be in a place where the civil rights movement happened and to see that history of social organizing still vibrant today and kids are integrating their education with the civil rights movement, that legacy and history, and the principles of that movement,” said Rachel Greenspan, a graduate student at Duke University who is one of the teachers this summer.

“I think the fact that this program combines those things in a really explicit, determined way is really exciting to me,” she said.

Greenspan is teaching a course on Gender and Everyday Life at the Sunflower County Freedom Project this summer.

The program is free to students. Harvard Medical School collaborated with the program to pay for the fellowships of the graduate students. The program is taught at four learning sites: Rosedale Freedom Project in Rosedale, Sunflower County Freedom Project in Sunflower, The Meridian Project in Meridian, and the J. Austin White Cultural Center in Eudora, Ark.

Throughout the summer, Andy Donnelly, executive director of the Freedom Summer Collegiate Program, lives in Mississippi and is directly involved with the partner sites. Emily Gowen, director of development for the program, drops in and out during the summer to check in.

Emily Gowen Credit: Freedom Summer Collegiate Program

“Our priority as an organization is really the learning and the content, but the ACT opens so many doors for students and it’s so important for them to do well on it in order for them to get to where they want to go so they can pursue their intellectual goals,” said Gowen.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) website, in 2016, the state had 29,852 test takers with an average composite score of 18.3 for the 2015-2016 school year. Students increased their scores in all four ACT subjects with an average composite score increasing from 17.6 in 2014-2015 to 18.3 in 2015-2016, stated a release from MDE.

During the collegiate program’s first year last summer, students increased their ACT scores on average from the 34th percentile to the 45th percentile, said Donnelly. The average score went from 17.46 to 19.29, he said.

“In a lot of cases for students that meant they were in a new bracket in terms of being able to qualify for admission and financial aid and stuff like that which is a big part of the reason why we do the ACT,” said Gowen.

Improving The Program

Gowen said drilling students isn’t the only way to prepare them for the ACT. Teaching them how to be critical thinkers is another successful approach.

Donnelly added that the ACT scores are considered secondary for program administrators. Giving students an “authentic experience” of college classes is the prominent goal, which in turn usually translates into ACT growth, he said.

Andy Donnelly Credit: Freedom Summer Collegiate Program

“You can have students grow on an ACT test actually by doing drills and their score can go up, but that doesn’t mean they’re any more prepared for the difficult reading and data thinking of college, ” said Donnelly.  “We’re  doing the college work that we feel like has a longer term of success.”

At the end of the four weeks, students can receive transferable college credits through Millsaps College. Donnelly said students who meet the course requirements and pass their classes with a B minus or higher, will earn college credits.

“Every student hopefully who passes this year will leave with college credits which is a pretty major piece of progress for them to claim,” said Gowen. She said it doesn’t mean students will place out of courses in college, but it will help them in the future if they ever take time off or need courses to fall back on.

Although the program has seen what they think are successes, they also have challenges to overcome both among the students and those teaching.

One challenge, Donnelly noted, is students being behind in reading and math skills. The second challenge he noted was graduate students not prepared to break down high level content to high school students.

“The biggest challenge is taking two groups of people who aren’t really in communication with each other, high school students who are behind in reading, grad students who enjoy talking in the academy to themselves and put them into meaningful conversations with each other,” said Donnelly.

Monitoring behavior problems, helping struggling students with work and both teachers observing one another to improve their own teaching methods were reasons for adding additional support in the classroom, said Gowen.

Earning college credit, doubling the number of teachers and offering more philosophy-based classes are all newer aspects to help improve the program this year. At the end of last summer, students, directors, and teachers filled out a survey to give feedback to Donnelly and Gowen about the program.

Gowen said input from the students is at the top of the list.

“We doubled the size of the program because there was so much demand for more content and they wanted to be able to choose the classes they took which was exciting,” said Gowen. “The reason we have so many philosophers this year is because students specifically said we want to learn about philosophy.”

Training Conference for Teachers

Before the teachers began their classes, they attended a three-day training conference in Jackson. The training held at Millsaps College included practice sessions and discussions about race, privilege and the American school system.

Panelists, (l to r) Sanford Johnson, Brian Foster, Jodi Skipper, Chelsea Caveny, and Kenneth Townsend, waiting for the conference to start at Millsaps College on June 1. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

The five panelists at the conference this year included: Sanford Johnson, deputy director of Mississippi First, Brian Foster, assistant professor of Sociology and Southern Studies at The University of Mississippi, Jodi Skipper, assistant professor of Anthropology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, Chelsea Caveny, Law Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Kenneth Townsend, executive director of the Institute  for Civic and Professional Engagement at Millsaps College.

The training was a mix of theoretical conversations about education, teachers practicing mini-lessons in front of people and learning how to keep discussions moving and students engaged, said Gowen.

Two summers ago, Donnelly was hired to teach at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, but before then, he was familiar with the freedom projects from teaching in Lake Village, Ark. Donnelly said he wanted to formalize an organization to help other grad students who would like to teach in this area and that led to last summer’s trial run.

In the future, Donnelly said he wants to get good at teaching high level concepts and getting students prepared for college.

“Even for all the mistakes we make, even for all we don’t know, results still happen, and that’s exciting and I feel like we can only get better,” said Gowen.

Here’s a list of the courses offered at the partner sites this summer most run June 5-30 while J. Austin White Cultural Center runs June 12-July 7.:

• Rosedale Freedom Project: Pollination Ecology, What Is The Right Thing To Do?, Technology & Identity, and Workers’ Rebellion

• Sunflower Freedom Project: Pollination Ecology, Gender & Everyday Life, Criminal Justice in the U.S., Language and Freedom

• Meridian Freedom Project: The Demands of Morality, Spaces of the Civil Rights Movement, Is It Right To Obey The Law?, and Why Haven’t We Cured Cancer Yet?

• J. Austin White Cultural Center: Acting With A Social Conscience and What Is The Good Life?

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.