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Real-life stories about improving schools

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By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

Carol Shepard, a mom in Georgia, shares her story: The XO Connection

"The kids at my daughter's third through fifth grade school were given laptops to use (at school) for a full school year. I decided to get involved in my daughter's school by using the incredible technology available to the students for a creative, collaborative project: a digital film club!

"I approached the school and convinced them to allow me to start a program that would bring students together to make a movie. It turns out there was a moviemaking contest, the 'Georgia Movie Academy,' that one of the teachers wanted to enter, and so we decided to use the club as a way to allow the students to produce an entry.

"We got the kids started creating their film - we outlined a plot, helped the students choose a central theme and decide on movie-making teams. Once we had a story, the adults helped work out the technical details. We taught the kids how to use morphing software, scratch animation and stop-motion technology to produce claymation (like Wallace and Gromit). The kids learned that you couldn't just do something once and expect to master it (we talked about the rule of three in software engineering - by the third time you build something you'll understand what you are building). Our movie took much more work than we had originally planned, but all of the kids arrived an hour or more early for school over a period of multiple weeks to participate in our club and get the work done. By the end of the movie-making process, the kids were starting to shoot new scenes themselves without any adult guidance, and, more importantly, were resolving their own team dynamic conflicts.

"We submitted to the Georgia Movie Academy and, lo and behold, we won the Best Picture award. The parents and other faculty were amazed at what the students had accomplished.

"Next year the students will be able to create another film, and I'm going to attempt to try for three separate film clubs (one K-2, one 3-5, and one for sixth grade)."

Greg McCoy shares his story of The Sunflower County Freedom Project

"Sunflower County is in rural western Mississippi, a hub of cotton, catfish and soybean farms that is also one of the poorest areas in the country. Greg McCoy and his group of volunteers were passionate about creating a program that would help students from Sunflower County succeed in school and win scholarships to attend four-year colleges. It was important to McCoy that students came out of the program with discipline and leadership skills as well as academic success.

"McCoy and his team decided that the best way to help Sunflower County in the long term would be to help a set of students from seventh grade all the way through the end of high school, mentoring them in academics, as well as offering them martial arts instruction to help with their mental discipline and their physical fitness.

"The team devised a plan to work with students: first years would be required to begin their time with the project by going on a tour of the south, visiting the locations of important civil rights events and talking with members of that movement. By understanding the past and interacting with leaders of the past, students would become grounded in history and be better able to connect real humans to historical events. After this initial trip, students would settle down into the program.

"With headquarters in Sunflower city proper (population 800), the initial students immediately settled into a routine - staying focused on their studies and on their martial arts training. The students participated in summer classes, Saturday classes during the school year, study sessions after normal school hours and much more. Gradually, the students of the Sunflower Project began to participate in programs outside of the scope of the original plan. They began to blog about their experiences on the Sunflower Project Web site, create video documentaries about their lives and even performed several plays on tours throughout the south.

"The results have been rather stunning. Not only have many students gone on to four-year colleges, but two former Sunflower students have reached the level of black belt in Taekwondo. Chris Perkins, a 2006 alumni, says that he's "learned more in these walls here in the Freedom Project about life and success, than I have in all my years at school." Ariel McNeal, a fourth-year fellow in the program, says that "the best thing about Freedom School is that we learn to do our best at all times and be a leader for others."

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