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In the Face of a Pandemic, Two Schools Collaborate to Advance Student Learning

Gia Montgomery, a senior at Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi, had a lot riding on her AP Calculus class this spring. Gia is heading to Macalester College in the fall to double major in biology and classics, with plans to pursue a career as an Ob-Gyn. With a qualifying score on the AP exam, Gia, and the 17 other students in the class, would gain course credit toward their undergraduate degrees.

But then the unexpected happened. The teacher of the Murrah AP class gave notice halfway through the semester, demanding that the school act swiftly to find a solution. Math Department Chair Alisha Gibson called her former colleague Kimberly Van Uden, a math teacher at Jackson Preparatory School, to see if she could help. Van Uden stepped up quickly, and with the school and her students on board, offered to include the Murrah class in her AP Calculus lessons. With the COVID-19 crisis fast unfolding, the classes would be delivered virtually.

There was only one remaining hitch. The Jackson Prep class used a different textbook. That’s where the Woodward Hines Education Foundation stepped in, providing the funds needed to purchase the books. In the middle of an unfolding pandemic, the schools and the foundation mobilized to meet a pressing need.

Gia admits that she was a little nervous at first interacting with students from a different school. “But Ms. Van Uden made it easy,” she says, “she was excited to teach us.” The virtual nature of the class also helped. “Communicating online removes the veil,” says Gia. “It wasn’t ‘you’re from a private school, I’m from a public school.’ We were all learning online. There were no boundaries anymore.”

Van Uden agrees that virtual learning helps ‘level the playing field.’ It also expands possibilities. “We can bring just about anyone into our classroom, including outside experts,” she says. “I think it [the pandemic] forced us into a whole new world.”

Murrah senior Bryan Tucker also resonated with the online format. “I was nervous to meet new students, but it went really well,” he says. “A few of members of the class didn’t like being on camera but by the end they showed their faces.”

Bryan, who’s poised to attend Jackson State University in the fall to major in music education, would like to see more collaborations between schools in the future. “Knowing that Ms. Van Uden’s students were also having trouble understanding calculus made us feel like we were on the same level. For the first time, I realized everyone’s struggling. It opened my eyes.”

Murrah’s Alisha Gibson also sees the potential for more collaborations between schools and local partners to enrich student learning. “There are so many community supports that could aid our students, so many perspectives they could be exposed to,” she says.
The success of such collaborations clearly depends on the passion and dedication of teachers. Says Gibson, “My goal is to provide as many opportunities as possible for students from the time they walk in 9th grade through graduation. I want our students to recognize that their teachers are advocates for their education.”