Sunday, July 09, 2006

Holly Springs Summer School Article

OXFORD, Miss. - For years, students in the Holly Springs and Marshall County public schools who needed summer school classes faced a tough choice: take classes at another school system or go without them. Unable to afford travel and tuition costs, many students chose the latter, and failed to advance to the next grade level.

But this summer, 176 students from the two districts received the classes they needed at Holly Springs High School, thanks to the Mississippi Teacher Corps program at the University of Mississippi. The Teacher Corps provided 32 teachers for the effort, allowing both school systems to afford summer school for the first time in 15 years.

"The Teacher Corps program has given Holly Springs a wonderful and unique opportunity to provide a summer school program for our seventh through 12th grade students," said Irene Walton, interim school superintendent. "Since the start of summer school, I've heard nothing but positive comments from students, parents and those in the community. We're already in discussions for continuing the collaboration next year and into the future."

Historically, Teacher Corps trainees generally serve in schools where the majority of students are black. According to Holly Springs School District officials, only eight of this summer's students are Caucasian. Officials also estimated more than 100 students needed courses to be promoted to the next grade level.

"I know that my son certainly wouldn't have been able to pass without it," said Dorothy Buck of Holly Springs.

Other students participated for their own academic enrichment.

"Taking this English II class has really prepared me for this fall," said Crishun Moore, a junior at H.W. Byers High School in Sand Flat. "Mr. (Joel) Hebert taught me several interesting things I hadn't known previously. It was quite fun, actually."

The Mississippi Teacher Corps is a two-year program that recruits college graduates to teach in critical-shortage areas of the Mississippi Delta in exchange for scholarships to earn master's degrees in curriculum and instruction from UM. Founded by Amy Gutman, a Harvard University graduate student, and Andy Mullins, former special assistant to the State Superintendent of Education, the program has trained more than 350 participants, benefiting an estimated 70,000 public school students since its inception in 1989.

"This is the largest class we have ever had," said Ben Guest, program manager of the Corps. "We received over 400 applications for 32 spots." This year's group includes five participants from Williams College, four from Ole Miss, three each from Harvard University and Amherst College and two from Brown University, he added.

In Holly Springs, the teachers are leading classes in biology, math, English, French, Spanish and social studies. Second-year participants serve as mentors for first-year Teacher Corps members.

"This collaboration is a win-win experience for everyone involved," said Germain McConnell, the program's co-director. "Without the Teacher Corps, the Holly Springs and Marshall County schools wouldn't have been able to have summer school due to a lack of certified teachers. Through this effort, the critical needs of these students are being met with excellent instruction, our first-year teachers are being mentored and our second-year teachers are gaining valuable teaching experience as well."

McConnell said the support of administrators, staff and parents has been an important factor in the summer school's success.

"We preach to the teachers that they must establish boundaries that will create an environment conducive to learning," McConnell said. "With everyone buying into that vision, classrooms are quiet and instruction remains consistent."

Local school and Mississippi Department of Education officials are enthusiastic about the program.

"This has been a huge benefit to the students in Marshall County schools," said Jerry Moore, director of Instructional Services for Marshall County Public Schools. "I've seen our students definitely learning and benefiting from what's taking place here. As long as the Teacher Corps is willing to work with us, I'd love to see us have a long-term relationship."

"The Mississippi Teacher Corps has always provided tutors to assist in-house teachers in providing summer school programs when necessary," said Wesley Williams II, director of MDOE's Mississippi Teacher Center, the legislatively created department charged with teacher recruitment and retention for the state's schools.

"What current program participants are doing in Holly Springs is giving them an excellent work experience before they begin their regular assignments in August," Williams added.

A 1996 alumnus of the teacher corps, Williams said the program provides "a wonderful alternative route" to educators desiring certification and placement in Mississippi's schools and in other states.

Joel Hebert, a second-year teacher who taught last year at Simmons High School in Hollandale, agrees.

"This summer has surpassed all of my expectations," Hebert said. "To have six teachers in the same classroom who share a common thread of expectations and procedures is truly a luxury."

A Williams College graduate and Vermont native, Hebert said he was drawn to the Mississippi Teacher Corps as an alternate route to teacher certification.

"I saw there was a need for teachers in the Mississippi Delta, and I wanted to be a part of the solution," Hebert said. "I would tell anyone this is a program for people who have a strong commitment and will see things through."

Elizabeth Savage, another second-year teacher, said she felt "very lucky" to be in Holly Springs this summer.

"This is not a glamorous job, but just making the connection with the kids means so much to me," said Savage, who will return to Gentry High School in Indianola this fall. "Even the smallest interactions can lead to profound changes in students' behaviors. Seeing hope come alive in them as they succeed at things they thought that they couldn't do is so fulfilling."

A native of Portland, Ore., who spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, Savage said joining the Teacher Corps was "the next logical step" in her desire to continue doing things that are worthwhile. She has plans to remain in the state as a teacher for at least another four years.

Holly Dawson of Birmingham also volunteered with the Peace Corps in the Philippines. Following this summer in Holly Springs, she will spend her first year in the Teacher Corps program at Calloway High School in Jackson.

"Teaching these kids is a wonderful experience for me," she said. "I'm learning as I am being taught and putting theories into practice. The feedback from the more experienced teachers is great."

Landon Pollard of Birmingham recently earned his bachelor's degree in English from Ole Miss. His faculty advisors in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College recommended that he apply for the Teacher Corps.

"Being in the Teacher Corps has made me realize how noble the teaching profession really is," Pollard said. "I never expected the kids to make such a profound impact upon me, but in the four weeks I've been here teaching, I've already come to love them."

Story by Edwin Smith

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