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Everything Needed Was There: The Story of the SMSZ College Readiness Program

Editors Note: Last fall, Center for Transforming Communities (CTC) provided grants to three Shalom Zones to help them implement projects to improve education in their neighborhoods. These were small grants, but we knew that even a small amount of resources in the hands of our Shalom Zone partners could have big impacts. All three participating Shalom Zones have wrapped up their projects, and over the coming days we’re going to be posting about their accomplishments. Up first: the story of how the South Memphis Shalom Zone pulled together local resources to offer an ACT prep and college readiness program in their neighborhood.

Students practice for the ACT in South Memphis

Like many of the projects CTC and the Shalom Zones participate in, this one started with assets – in this case, two individuals from two churches in South Memphis who were passionate about helping the youth from the neighborhood succeed in college. Dr. John Malone is a member of Greater White Stone Missionary Baptist Church and a lifetime educator, and Ms. Theresa Harrison is a member of Greater New Salem Missionary Baptist Church and a leader in the South Memphis Shalom Zone.

Together, Dr. Malone and Ms. Harrison developed a vision for an ACT prep and college readiness program that would help high-schoolers in the neighborhood prepare for college. They wanted to offer ACT prep classes, organize college visits, and provide mentoring to help guide neighborhood youth through the college admissions process. With a small grant from CTC, they would be able to provide their students with ACT prep books and pay for their ACT registration fees, and be able to offer a small stipend to whoever was willing to teach the ACT prep classes. They were awarded their grant in October 2015.

As they were getting organized, they realized they would need to answer a couple questions: Who was going to teach the ACT prep classes? Where would the classes be held? And how would we find the volunteer mentors?

In each case, the answer came in the form of assets from the South Memphis neighborhood.

Who was going to teach the ACT prep classes? Well, Dr. Malone is a retired teacher and principal from Memphis City Schools, and he also knew of two other high school teachers in his church who might be willing to help: Ms. Pricilla Hayes and Ms. Jennifer Marshall. All of them agreed to give up their Saturday mornings and use their gifts to help make the program a success.

Later, they were joined by Ms. Patricia Bailey and Mr. Thomas Bledsoe. Ms. Bailey is a member of Centenary United Methodist Church in South Memphis and a public school teacher, while Mr. Bledsoe attends services at Chris Quest Community Church and, it just so happens, teaches ACT prep classes at schools throughout South Memphis.

Between them, these 5 instructors had decades of experience teaching the subjects tested on the ACT, while Mr. Bledsoe brought a special expertise in ACT strategies and techniques. Everything that was needed was there in South Memphis, among the membership of three churches located just a few blocks from each other.

Students from the SMSZ ACT Prep and College Readiness program visit Rhodes College

And where would the classes be held? They knew there would be a lot of options here. In addition to the Shalom Zone churches, South Memphis is full of community centers and other facilities that could have hosted the program: The Gaston Park Community Center and Library, Knowledge Quest, the Boys and Girls Club, the YWCA, the College Park Community Center – any of these facilities could have worked. Ultimately, they decided on Greater White Stone. As a head deacon of the church, Dr. Malone had access to the building and knew the church’s schedule of activities, and, as an added bonus, Greater White Stone had a computer lab on site that the students could use to register for the ACT. Everything that was needed was right there in South Memphis – in fact, in this case, the neighborhood had much more than was needed.

And how would they find volunteer mentors? Through the South Memphis Shalom Zone, Ms. Harrison was able to reach out to the members of 5 South Memphis churches and more than a dozen other community organizations and associations asking for mentors to help with the program. Some great people stepped forward, including Mr. Robert Davis of Greater White Stone, who would go on to set an example for the other mentors through his dedication and willingness to work with his mentee throughout the college admissions process. Again, everything that was needed was there, in South Memphis, ready to step forward to help the program succeed.

Ultimately, 6 students enrolled in the program: 4 seniors and 2 underclassmen. They met every Saturday for 6 weeks for ACT prep sessions, and they were each assigned a mentor. They had the opportunity to visit two local colleges, Rhodes College and the University of Memphis, and then they all took the ACT in April of this year. The four seniors were accepted to at least one of 6 different colleges – University of Memphis, UT Martin, UT Chattanooga, Murray State, Lane College, and Tennessee State. For some of them, they had already been accepted to college and were looking to improve their ACT scores for scholarship purposes. For others, they wanted to raise their ACT scores to be sure they were accepted to the school of their choice.

By bringing together just a few of the assets in South Memphis, they were provided that opportunity.

At the end of the program, the students had great things to say about their experience:

  • “I learned the [ACT] test isn't as scary as I may think. Also anything can be accomplished if you put extra study time into something.”

  • “This program has given me great knowledge and ACT test taking tips and strategies that has changed my whole perspective of the ACT. I feel as though I will make a higher score because of this.”

  • “Actually the ACT prep was really good/educational. It helped me learn a lot.”

  • “I think this program is excellent already and I most certainly would recommend this to other students.”

This was just the start, and the SMSZ plans to offer the program again next year. They hope to continue to grow the program, and they’ll do so knowing they have everything they need to be successful right there in South Memphis. And that’s ultimately what Asset-Based Community Development is all about.

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