Meridian Star

October 6, 2013

Meridian Freedom Project debuts Monday

By Ida Brown /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     A project designed to open doors for Meridian students will be announced Monday.

    The Meridian Freedom Project is a year-round after-school program for middle school and high school and high school students in the Meridian Public School District. Slated to open in June 2014, the program seeks to build a corps of academically capable, socially conscious and mentally disciplined young leaders in Meridian.

    "We're replicating the Sunflower County Freedom Project (SCFP) and will be the first affiliate of that project," said Anna Stephenson, who serves as program development director of the Meridian Freedom Project (MFP).

    In 1998, Sunflower County Freedom Project founders and Teach For America alumni Chris Myers-Asch, Shawn Raymond and Gregg Costa set out to establish a program to create more pathways to college for their students in Sunflower County. Fifteen years later, 100 percent of the students completing the Freedom Fellowship, a six-year-commitment to the Freedom Project, go on to attend four-year colleges and universities across the country.

    As SCFP's first expansion site of the newly formed Freedom Project Network, the Meridian Freedom Project will allow for future Freedom Projects. MFP will honor the legacy of the Meridian Freedom Schools at its opening during summer 2014, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer '64. The Freedom Projects are led by Teach For America Alumna who returned to their roots to teach in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta. SCFP Executive Director Vaish Shastry is from Pine Bluff, Ark., while both of Stephenson's parents are native Mississippians, her father, a native of Meridian.

    "I am thrilled to help grown the Freedom Project in Meridian," Stephenson said. I have seen the power it has on Freedom Fellows in Sunflower, and I cannot wait to watch it transforms the lives of our Meridian students."

    According to Stephenson, the idea behind MFP is "to create another opportunity for kids to find a pathway to college." The project's success is attributed to its dedication to providing year-round rigorous core academic support, arts enrichment, health and fitness training, character development and educational travel. Freedom Fellows – those who participate in the project – live by four LEAD principals: Love, Education, Action and Discipline. By practicing these principles of the Freedom Project, participants become leaders in their schools and communities.

    Support for the MFP began with Parents for Public Schools graduates who traveled to Sunflower in 2012 to tour the program. According to Stephenson, they were immediately hooked. The MFP Board – Amy Elliott, chairman; Dr. Bill Scaggs, president emeritus of Meridian Community College; and Flo Bradley, CEO of – established an administrative collaboration with The Montgomery Institute.

    "Observing the young people engaged in Sunflower as they live the LEAD principles is a 'game-changing' experience," Scaggs said. "They demonstrate remarkable self-respect and optimism, as well as a couple of old fashioned characteristics: grit and gumption!"

    The Meridian Freedom Project is geared to students in grades sixth through 12th in the Meridian Public School District, beginning with those in grades sixth through eighth and progressing with them until they graduate from high school.

    "We will continue to recruit for Freedom Fellows as they complete their fifth grade year," Stephenson said.

    Although the location of the MFP site is still in the works, the board is actively recruiting for Freedom Fellows.

    "We have met with principals in the secondary schools, and have a great partnership with Dr. Alvin Taylor (MPSD superintendent) and Robin Miles (assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction," Stephenson said. "Our goal is to, with the principals' permission, is to talk to the teachers, counselors and social workers – the people who know the students best. We're open to any student in the school system."

    To be considered an applicant for the Meridian Freedom Project, students will be required to write an essay and undergo an interview. There will also be a tuition fee.

    "The main criteria – which we think is the most important  – is that any student who is willing to commit to that hard work and is willing to do whatever it takes to make college a reality and an option," Stephenson said.

    The program's format will be as follows:

    • Summer – Freedom Fellows will attend five weeks of 8 a.m.-5 p.m. programming. Mornings will include classes on reading, speaking, writing and math taught by trained college interns from across the country.

    "The curriculum will be based on the next year's curriculum; they'll be working ahead to prepare them for that first day of school," Stephenson said. "Through the interns, the kids will be exposed to people from all over, with diverse majors and areas of study and diverse experiences.

    After lunch, the students will take arts classes – drama, visual arts or other areas. They also will participate in fitness classes and receive nutrition guidelines.

    "The afternoons will be an opportunity for extracurricular and other activities," she said.

    At the end of the five-week period, the students will have the opportunity to go on one of two offered camping trips.

    "Those are meant to be trips to visit historical monuments in this area of the country. We camp in state parks, and during the daytime visit museums and other significant places in the area," she said.

    After the camping trip, the Freedom Fellows will have the opportunity to travel with the Freedom Project, to spend a week on the Ole Miss campus.

    "They'll be taking classes and figuring out what it's like to be a college student – they stay in the dorms, meet professors, talk with students. It's a great opportunity for kids to be exposed to school and figure out what college is like," Stephenson said.

    • After-school – Provides participants the opportunity to study and get help with homework and projects. An ACT Prep Course will be available, as well as several extracurricular courses such as a literary magazine, a garden club and fitness programs.

    • Saturdays – Freedom Fellows will go to the site from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and will participate in activities similar to the after-school program.

    The Meridian Freedom Project is funded in part by The Phil Hardin Foundation, The Montgomery Institute, Parents for Public Schools and AT&T.

    "Our board has been committed to the Sunflower Freedom Project for a number of years," said Rebecca Combs-Dulaney, CEO of the Phil Hardin Foundation. "Replicating a successful project and not re-inventing the wheel every time is what brings about transformative change in communities. That is why The Phil Hardin Foundation is supporting this project."

    For more information on the Freedom Project, its work in Mississippi and how to be involved, contact Anna Stephenson at or Amy Elliott at