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Degrees of Freedom to welcome students in shaping educational vision

Freedom Builders fellows will help design and test the secondary degree program, slated to launch in 2021

MARLBORO—Freedom Builders Fellowship will welcome up to 30 fellows, aged 18-24 to town over the next 10 months.

According to the program’s website, freedom-builders.us, fellows will receive college credit while contributing to the design of an inclusive form of higher education and degree — and they will be paid to do so.

Fellows’ compensation will include a $10,000 stipend, college courses, and transportation to the former Marlboro College campus.

Their work will inform the program-in-progress, Degrees of Freedom, currently envisioned as a two-year degree for students in late high school and early college. The low-residency, fully-funded program will offer a combination of coursework and internships.

As a whole, its architects say that Degrees of Freedom is being designed to support the needs of low-income, first-generation, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students. The program is slated to launch in fall 2021.

The degree program is still in the design phase. The team behind the new program hopes to collaborate with the fellows — whose life experience will likely mirror those of future DoF students — as part of the building process.

According to the website, fellows will be expected to take two of three pilot classes — Writing for Social Change, Stats for Justice, and College Success — that will be offered in the fall. Students may also take courses from other academic institutions or hold jobs.

Chandell Stone, Fellowship director and chief growth officer, described the fellows as being part of the team of leaders who reflect the community that Degrees of Freedom wants to serve.

The design team, with the fellows’ help, seeks to create an anti-oppressive higher education experience, Stone said.

“Anti-Oppression is about taking it a step beyond anti-racism, and not just being more inclusive for people of color, but also more inclusive for folks with disabilities, those who are low-income, immigrants, LGTBQ, or are on a non-traditional post-secondary path” Stone said.

“And so anti-oppression is about actively working to root out the biases that can be easily defaulted to when we all have been socialized in an inequitable society.”

She said the fellows’ participation will test the rest of the design team’s working theories around the culture behind the future Degrees of Freedom.

The fellows will also pick a focus area that they believe can create a more inclusive and anti-oppressive higher-education experience. Examples include hiring, codes of conduct, admissions, coursework, and funding.

The fellowship is being funded through Democracy Builders’ Fund’s program monies as well as grants and individual donations, Stone said.

Unless a response to the COVID-19 pandemic will require otherwise, the fellowships will begin at the end of September, when the fellows arrive on campus between Sept. 27 and Oct. 10.

From October to January, fellows will participate in remote learning.

A second campus visit is scheduled for January. For the spring semester, fellows will work on “pilots” based on their area of focus, with a presentation scheduled for June.

In its early stages, the design team had eyed this month for the launch of Degrees of Freedom. Stone said that work was delayed by a combination of concerns raised by the community and the COVID-19 pandemic. While disappointing, she also called the setback a blessing.

“Because now we get to spend this year really being thoughtful and intentional about how the program is going to live up to the core values that we care so much about for our school,” Stone said.

A number of those concerns relate to public complaints over DOF founder Seth Andrew, now listed on the website as one of four advisors. A number of former students and staff of color at Democracy Prep, his previous charter school initiative, alleged racist attitudes, behaviors, and policies on the part of Andrew, his subordinates, and the school’s programming and policies.

Andrew has acknowledged the need for growth and learning — and the individual truths and contexts of individual critics of their respective Democracy Prep experiences — but has steadfastly cited studies and surveys measuring overwhelming parent and student satisfaction.

He has told The Commons that he is stepping back and putting the leadership in the hands of Stone and a number of other colleagues who are non-white so they can develop the program firsthand — now with the help of the fellows.

While Stone said the delay was disappointing, she also called the setback a blessing.

“Because now we get to spend this year really being thoughtful and intentional about how the program is going to live up to the core values that we care so much about for our school,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #577 (Wednesday, September 2, 2020). This story appeared on page A8.

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