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Suburban college, urban schools: Summer pairing opens eyes at Davidson College

By Ann Doss Helms
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

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Davidson College, a private liberal arts school in a small town north of Charlotte, isn’t the first place most people associate with urban education.

In an attempt to get students outside “the Davidson bubble,” the college sent eight undergrads to spend six weeks living in west Charlotte and working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Project LIFT and other groups at the heart of the struggle to improve achievement for impoverished students.

The results were eye-opening for the young adults and the agencies that hosted them.

“This community is really invested in the education of their children,” Kassim Alani, a Davidson economics and anthropology major, said after spending his summer working with families whose children are piloting a new year-round calendar.

Alani said he encountered initial distrust of the school system in neighborhoods that have seen school closings and other forced changes. But once he made personal contact, he said, he found the educational aspirations the families hold.

The Davidson Education Scholars presented end-of-summer reports to advisers and supporters last week. As academics, they said, they loved analyzing data and discussing policy with the people who shape it.

But they kept coming back to the power of knowing and caring about the children whose futures are at stake.

Megan Mavity, a Hispanic studies major, said she enjoyed working with the Belk Foundation and International House, which are working together to support students learning English. But she said the memories that will stick with her came from tutoring three rising first-graders at Pinewood Elementary.

Mavity talked about feeling one child’s ribs when she gave the child a hug, and asking another student what letter his name starts with. She recalled the sound of his tears hitting the desk as he admitted he didn’t know.

“These moments of pain and joy are what will keep me passionate,” she said.

The students could be blunt in their assessments. Emily Rapport, an English major who worked with an Arts &Science Council summer camp on digital and media literacy, got chuckles from the audience when she said CMS’ classroom technology “isn’t really working for anyone.” She cited limited software and restrictive Internet filters but said she became fascinated with the power of digital studies.

Alani, who worked with Project LIFT, said he believes the five-year, $55 million private investment in West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools will lead to success in the project’s goal: 90 percent graduation rate, 90 percent of students scoring on grade level and 90 percent making at least a year’s progress on exams by 2017. But he voiced doubts about whether the gains will endure long enough to break the cycle of poverty.

“Five years of investment isn’t enough to change a generation,” he said. “But it definitely is a start.”

Allison Dulin, the Davidson administrator who led the new education scholars program, said it’s part of the college’s “transition to impact” push to help students turn classroom education into real-life change. The students lived together at Johnson C. Smith University’s Mosaic Village apartment complex on West Trade Street. Besides their adult mentors, each scholar was paired with a CMS high school student as part of an Arts & Science Council effort to make a documentary about the summer project.

Thirteen-year-old Ciara Maddox, a rising ninth-grader at Northwest School of the Arts, said the summer project gave her a close-up look at policies that will shape her life and let her talk openly with college students about next steps in life.

“I’ve learned to open up,” Ciara said.

Many of the Davidson students said the summer shaped their plans for the future.

Rashaun Bennett, a political science major who worked with CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, spent the summer analyzing low participation in Advanced Placement classes at some struggling schools. He said he’s now working on a pilot project that will help “underserved students” in Davidson prepare for college.

English major Laura Thrash, a CMS graduate, worked with Communities in Schools, writing personal stories of students in the dropout-prevention program. She now plans to become a high school English teacher.

“Instead of just writing a success story,” she said, “I can have the opportunity to be a character in one.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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