Mississippi

Q&A with Constance Slaughter-Harvey: Getting kids to dance while doing times-tables

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In Mississippi, only one public school has expanded learning time for all of its students. But a patchwork of community after-school programs fills some of the void. One of the most genuinely grassroots programs was created by renowned attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey and her mother three decades ago. Harvey served in Mississippi as Assistant Secretary of State for Elections and Public Lands with Secretary Dick Molpus. She is the recipient of two legal awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People honoring outstanding civil-rights achievements.

Constance Slaughter-Harvey

The after-school program Harvey runs in her hometown of Forest, located in central Mississippi, strives to use creative and alternative teaching methods to reach kids. Tutors might use rap songs, for instance, to engage students in words and poetry. Harvey believes strongly in expanded learning time—but only if the teaching style and approach differ from the traditional classroom. She recently spoke with The Hechinger Report.

Question: How did your after-school program start?

Answer: In 1983, my mother and I started an after-school program for young children. It was motivated by her desire to work with children and supplement whatever opportunity they had in the public schools. My mother always believed reading was so fundamental to a happy life. She turned my father’s office into a library, and the children would come from nearby subdivisions and they would read. During the same time, Mama would teach the adults to read. People would come to the back door so no one would see them and cause them to feel ashamed, and we would put up brown paper so no one would see them through the window.

Q: Has the after-school program always been focused on reading and basic academic skills?

A: We added travel to it. We took trips to Memphis, museums, Montgomery, Ala., Atlanta, Six Flags. When Mama passed in 1991, we continued it and got a $20,000 grant for an abstinence program. We’ve also brought in Smokey the Bear, and have done segments of civil rights. But generally what we’ve done is work with young people after school. Our main focus is on homework and tutorials, and we approach that by making learning exciting. We might have the kids dancing while doing their times-tables—whatever it takes to make them think that learning is not boring.

Q: What are your thoughts about more schools adding time to the school day and year?

A: Longer hours and more months of school attendance are but tools to help children. If the school can provide something other than what they are accustomed to, then I think it’s a good idea. I think it would be wonderful to keep kids in school longer, but I would change the curriculum and daily agenda. It would be great to go to school and have play time and exercise without it being exercise in the kids’ minds. Really, that’s what summer is about.

Q: What happens if schools add time but don’t do anything different?

A: I think they get bored. I look at children and young people as little adults. I would get bored if I had to eat the same thing every day. Variety is the spice of life. If I had to go to school and be in the same desk and listen to the same teacher, I would daydream, too.

Q: What results have you seen from your own after-school program?

A: I have been doing this a long time. I have seen some fall through the cracks. I’ve had one go pro [in sports] and help me financially. One is a doctor. There are so many successes. Two other kids ended up going to jail for being part of a drug conspiracy. The majority of kids we work with finish high school. About 40 percent go on to college. What we try to do is say, “If you want to go to college, there is a way to go to college.” I’m pro-education. You cannot get too much education and I try to convey that to them.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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