Twice a week, the 16 self-named Freedom Writers of Little Rock’s Henderson Middle School trade their backpacks for boom mikes, producing a podcast at the local radio station for their school community.
“It’s all about them. It’s their deal,” says educator Jeremy Williams, faculty-in-charge of the class and himself a product of the Little Rock School District.
“They’ve produced episodes on the cafeteria food, the new principal, breast cancer awareness, issues going on in their community. It’s whatever they research and come up with.”
The seventh and eighth graders are part of a new program supported jointly by the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and implemented by ForwARd Arkansas—a public-private partnership seeking to enhance equity and improve student achievement across the state. The effort aims to make deep connections at an earlier age between classroom learning and real-world career paths.
Working with a specific business or non-profit in their community and a toolkit created by graduate students at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, each of the Little Rock School District’s eight middle schools is pursuing their own customized approach to community-centered, project-based learning.
The unique effort helps students connect the dots between what they learn at school and potential vocations in their communities—from journalism to agriculture to forensic sciences.
Catalyst for Change
District Superintendent Michael Poore, who oversees the economically and racially diverse district of over 23,000 students, believes extending the classroom into the surrounding community can be a catalyst for change.
Academic research supports his thesis—indicating that when schools and communities work together, students earn higher grades, have better attendance and display more motivation.
“It’s a challenging age group of kids to try and impact,” he explained. “Personally, I’ve always been kind of frustrated—as a parent and as an educator for 34 years—with this very structured, all lined up, sit in the right chairs, everyone behave mentality.”
Mike felt there had to be a way “to use the energy of a middle schooler in productive ways that make them feel valued with real work and real projects. That’s how this concept emerged.”
Connecting the Dots
The project was a strong fit with ForwARd Arkansas. Since its founding in 2014, the organization has worked at the grass-roots level to foster educational partnerships between schools and local businesses and other resources available in their communities.
“Project-based learning is a great way to engage these middle school kids and get them thinking about their future,” Michael says. “It’s all about connecting the dots between what they’re learning in the classroom and what they could be doing with their lives.”
Each school effort is different and customized to a specific venture in the local community. “I didn’t want it to be a cookie-cutter approach,” he adds.
Dunbar Middle School is an international magnet school, focusing on culture and language. Their program partners with Heifer International to create a sustainable urban garden to help feed their community. Meanwhile, Horace Mann Arts & Sciences Magnet Middle School is partnering students with forensic scientists at the Arkansas State Criminal Lab.
One feature the diverse efforts share is an openness to a broad range of students. Of his Freedom Writers, Jeremy explains: “It’s just an elective course. Anyone can sign up. We have honors students, middle-of-the-road students and everyone in between.”
Preparing Students for More
Jeremy is optimistic about the change he is witnessing. Whether his students are building self-confidence behind the microphone, debating which topic to cover that day, how to edit the dialogue or promote the episode on social media, he has found that the students “know a lot more than what people assume.”
“Sometimes they disagree, and that’s great! It’s been fun to watch them take control and incredible to see how when you give them a platform to speak, they are so passionate.”
Jeremy hopes some will take their interest to the next level, opening their eyes to a career in broadcast journalism.
“They are loving it. They all post their podcast links on their social media accounts and joke around about being news hosts.”
Thurman Green, a community engagement consultant at ForwARd Arkansas, sees potential beyond just a future career.
At Henderson, for example, the focus on communications and community “is proving to these kids that you don’t have to be an adult to affect change. They can start the public service mindset at an earlier age. It’s really going to help them shape their future—and a byproduct is that the entire community benefits.”