MARLBORO — After running a successful fall pilot program, the folks at Degrees of Freedom are hoping to welcome at least 100 students to their campus in Marlboro in September 2021.
“We brought 20 fellows to campus to begin to pilot some aspects of the Degrees of Freedom program,” said Chandell Stone, fellowship director and lead program designer.
The students who came to Marlboro were between 18 and 22 years old, said Stone, some of them just out of high school, some finishing up college and others who started in higher education but stopped for one reason or another.
“I characterize these as students with unfinished learning,” said Stone. “Higher education has failed these students.”
Given the right opportunities, courses and support systems that meet their needs, these students can succeed, insisted Stone.
“It’s not a flaw amongst our students,” said Stone. “It’s a flaw of our system.”
Democracy Builders Fund brought Degrees of Freedom to Marlboro at the end of May after it purchased the Marlboro College campus for a total of $1,725,000 in cash and debt.
Seth Andrew, DBF’s board chairman, brought the concept to Marlboro but has since turned over the reins to Stone and the design team at Degrees of Freedom.
“Seth will continue to serve as a supporter and advisor to the program,” said Stone.
Andrew, a former education official in the Obama administration, helped establish 21 public charter schools that serve students in low-income neighborhoods in five states, starting with Democracy Prep in Harlem in 2005.
The purchase of the campus was roiled by allegations of harassment and racism at Democracy Prep schools and by the concerns of Marlboro community members who were grieving the loss of Marlboro College, which had operated on Potash Hill since 1946.
Stone said over the past year, she and the rest of the design team have had the opportunity to meet and work with many community members who are excited about what Degrees of Freedom hopes to bring to Potash Hill.
“I have more people asking how they can be of help than I can keep up with,” she said.
Since the summer, the design team has pushed ahead with plans to, according to its website, “launch a new model of higher education, where high school students can earn college credit, and high school/GED graduates can get the boost they need to access, competitive colleges and well-paid careers.”
Stone said the fellows, working with the design team, tested out three programs on campus and during on-line classes. The programs focused on using statistical analysis to support social justice, writing for social change and preparing for success in college.
The fellows worked with Dr. Basil Smikle, a lecturer at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, Prof. Eric Ozawa, a senior lecturer in NYU’s Expository Writing Program, and Dr. Ivan Figueroa, the director of the Mountaineer Scholars Program at the now closed Southern Vermont College in Bennington.
“Each of the fellows was excited by the opportunity to really make a mark on the future of higher ed by helping us to put together, or co-construct, policies, practices, ideas and theories about how higher education should function for low income, first generation or students of color so that they can be successful,” said Stone.
The fellows, said Stone, are helping the design team get the curriculum ready for a full cohort of students in the fall. But that’s not all they’re working on, she said. As working groups, the students are contributing to the design of policies, support services, a code of conduct, the admissions application process and the faculty hiring process.
Stone said while she is a woman of color, her experience in college is markedly different from these students coming to Marlboro, who have multiple challenges to confront on their way to achieving a college degree.
Those challenges, she said, include cost, familial obligations, work, and a higher-education system that has often not recognized the challenges faced by low-income, first generation or students of color.
“When I went to college I was insulated from that world,” she said. “I went to class and ate at the caf. Life was good.”
But, said Stone, people experience “different Americas,” and are being prepared for life in varying ways depending on the quality and the context of their elementary and high school education.
“We are trying to be very intentional about this,” she said. “These are not your typical college students, insulated from the real world. They are going to be adulting.”
Most importantly, said Stone, is giving the students the tools they need to succeed, whether that’s in a career or while pursuing more education at another institution.
“That ups the level of support services our students are going to need,” said Stone, who noted helping them learn how to navigate large institutions and to develop financial literacy will be an important part of the school’s curriculum.
“We want to provide the right bridge so they can successfully matriculate from our program and have a good quality of life,” said Stone, who has a B.S. in mathematics from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and a masters in education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Because Degrees of Freedom is not yet accredited, it is working under the auspices of Doral College, which was founded on the campus of a charter school in Florida similar to Democracy Prep.