MERIDIAN -- Tanya Clark has always had big hopes for her 13-year-old son, Darry Clark II.
And while she felt he was progressing academically during the school day, she worried that there was still a lot more he needed to learn about art, culture and how to communicate clearly with other people.
Clark worries about that less these days, thanks to her son's experiences in the Meridian Freedom Project, an after-school and summer program designed to help sixth through 12th grade students develop academically, socially and culturally.
"I've really seen him come out of his shell," Clark said, smiling. "Through this program, the kids are really learning to be young ladies and young men. They are learning to be more open to what society has to offer. I'm so happy for him."
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The Meridian Freedom Project, which is open to Meridian Public School District students, is patterned after the Sunflower County Freedom Project, based in the Mississippi Delta. The project kicked off in June 2014, when 60 Freedom Fellows in grades six through eight participated in a summer learning and leadership program.
The program has three components -- a summer program, an after-school program, and some Saturday programs. Students meet at a renovated building located on Eighth Street, within view of the Temple Theater.
During the school week, students get homework support from program staff. They also participate in a variety of enrichment activities, including drama, art, book discussions, gardening, physical activities including taekwondo, poetry readings, and film viewings and discussions.
Lessons and projects
On Saturdays, students sometimes venture out into the community to attend festivals, see plays, or participate in volunteer projects. Students learning about entrepreneurship spent a recent Saturday selling hot chocolate mix at a festival. Through the activity, they learned more about how to market their product, set prices and determine net profit.
"One of the things they learned there is that the money that you make isn't truly money made," said Asha el-Shair, program director for the project. "I think it was a good experience for them. It really got them thinking."
Students also participate in a variety of educational travel, visiting colleges in Mississippi and beyond. They also have visited historical sites, including sites tied to the Civil Rights Movement. On a recent trip to Atlanta, one of the highlights of the trip was going out to eat with a group of young professionals, including an engineer, an epidemiologist and entrepreneurs.
"We talked to them ahead of time about how this was an opportunity to learn to speak to people, and you could tell the students were really trying," el-Shair said. "They made an effort to hold those conversations, to ask questions, and to practice conversing."
Four key values
The program focuses on four key values -- love, education, action and discipline.
Ninth-grader Arthurlica Burton said that one thing she has learned from the program is that support and encouragement can come from people who don't look like her. She said that in the past, she has sometimes written off people who were not black, like her. But now, she said she sees that there are white people who might want to help her, too.
"I'm learning that people can be different, but everybody can help you -- everyone has something to teach you, you just have to listen," said Arthurlica, who hopes to become an obstetrician and gynecologist when she is older. "I'm learning that I can talk to and approach different types of people, too. It's good."
The program is inspired by the Freedom Schools, which were developed as part of the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights project, an effort that focused on voter registration and educating Mississippians, particularly black Mississippians, for the purpose of social change.
Graduation and beyond
Ultimately, the hope is that students will graduate from high school, know what they want to do next, and how to achieve those goals.
"I want them to leave us with as many options in front of them as possible," el-Shair said. "And I want them to have the confidence to go for whatever option they really want. A lot of kids have opportunity - even if it doesn't seem like it. But they don't have the confidence to take the opportunity."
For many of Meridian's young people, just getting to high school graduation can be a challenge. And seeing a vision for life beyond high school can be even tougher. In 2012-13, the graduation rate for the district was just 62 percent. Many of the district's students come from families that struggle financially, with about 86 percent of students qualifying for government-subsidized lunch because of low family income.
Program organizers say they understand the challenges Meridian's kids can face, and are dedicated to working with students who have demonstrated that they are curious, dedicated, and hardworking, even if they don't have high grades or a history of academic excellence.
Students have to be willing to commit to attending the program during the week, on Saturdays and during the summer. Transportation both to and from the program is provided, with pickup available from Meridian schools.
"We don't want transportation to get in the way of them being here," said Anna Stephenson, director of the Meridian Freedom Project. "A lot of our parents work, and so the transportation is important."