THE ISSUE: A program is being implemented to help at-risk students succeed.

THE IMPACT: Program officials say that at-risk students who receive mentoring and one-on-one guidance and tutoring have a much greater chance at being productive members of society later in their lives than those who receive no attention.

Pine Bluff School District instructional technology specialist Zach Lewis detailed the Freedom Schools Initiative Friday at the district’s administration building.

This initiative — whose mission is to curb summer learning loss and close the achievement gap — will enroll 120 at-risk Pine Bluff students and will operate using the Children’s Defense Fund’s program model.

“Freedom Schools evolved from the 1964 Freedom Summer movement where college students from northern states like New York, Connecticut, and Ohio, came to Mississippi,” Lewis said. “During that time African-American people could vote but there was a caveat. They had poll taxes and the literature test. In order to vote as an African-American, they had to pass the test and know how to read.”

He continued: “The test was hard; it was basically written at a [college] sophomore or junior level. It was hard. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations came together and mobilized in Mississippi and took our people to the polls so they could have a right to vote.”

Because the Pine Bluff School District is a Title I district, Lewis said most students are at-risk. These students have free and reduced lunch, would be first-generation college students, and live in neighborhoods with limited access to positive opportunities. The Freedom Schools will be in session in Pine Bluff from June 19 to July 28, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The teachers will be University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff students who will be paid a stipend. The kindergarten to 12th grade students do not pay, but their parents must attend three meetings and be engaged with the programming, Lewis said. The Pine Bluff School District enrolls about 4,100 students.

Lewis said that Freedom Schools is a partnership with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, What’s Next Pine Bluff, the Pine Bluff School District Parent Center, the University of Arkansas Extension Service, Boys & Girls Club and Youth Engagement Services.

About 60 people came to the press conference.

Pine Bluff High School sophomore Allen Smith belongs to What’s Next Pine Bluff, a nonprofit organization that provides educational and community service projects. He said this organization enabled him to meet new people, visit colleges and volunteer at Indiana Street Park.

“I got to mentor students and have fun with them,” Smith said.

Pine Bluff High School junior Alexandria Jackson belongs to What’s Next Pine Bluff and also visited colleges and volunteered.

“Last summer, we earned over 100 hours of community service,” Jackson said. “… I was blessed to be a part of a female empowerment group that discussed issues that pertain to young women and brainstorm possible strategies and solutions. If I had not been a part of What’s Next Pine Bluff, I would probably have spent my time hanging at my friends’ or playing video games.”

Sedrick Rice is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the director of the Math and Science Pre-College STEM Center at UAPB.

“Students will do robotics training, coding and 3D visualization,” Rice, who has a doctorate degree, said. “They will learn to improve their critical thinking skills and team-building skills. We are excited about this partnership.”

Adrian Dhanaraj of What’s Next Pine Bluff said this program is “screaming our mission.”

“A young person in Pine Bluff will have the same opportunity to succeed as a student anywhere in America,” he said. “… Students in both the elementary and the upper program will have the opportunity to engage in community service.”

Freddie Johnson, a teacher at the Pine Bluff School District Parent Center, called Freedom Schools a synergy in conjunction with her occupation.

“My entire job is to move the needle as far as student academic achievement and learning is concerned,” she said. “We all know that reading is one of the bedrocks of all of the other disciplines. To that end, we have a reading initiative and we give away free books because I am a firm believer that every student needs a personal library.”

Nyeshia Aldridge is the chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Jefferson County, which assists children after-school and during the summer. The organization provides meals to students; assists them with homework; and teaches character, leadership and robotics.

“We work on math and literacy throughout the summertime,” Aldridge said. “We do field trips. We encourage parent involvement and volunteers and are looking for community partnerships.”

Joni Alexander, chief executive officer of Youth Engagement Services, said her organization “helps communities and people change for the better. The major things that YES fosters are exposure and collaboration.”

Lee Anderson, staff chairman of the University of Arkansas Extension Service in Jefferson County, said he will support Freedom Schools by discussing eating healthily, gardening, water quality education, marketing vegetable crops and creating public service announcements.

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