Alumnus Roy DeBerry, Brandeis faculty and students unite to empower math students in rural Mississippi

By Kennedy Ryan
April 12, 2024

Roy DeBarry smiling in a room with a Brandeis University flag on the wall
“I believe it’s important for kids to get the [educational] exposure they need to compete in our society,” said Roy DeBerry ’70, GSAS MA’78, PhD’79. “I knew Brandeis would be the right partner because the university is built around that.”

Photo Credit: Chris Day

From their suburban campus, Brandeis students are making an impact and learning from students in rural Benton County, Mississippi, a community at the center of the civil rights movement six decades ago.

Through an initiative known as the Ashland Brandeis Connection, 13 Brandeis undergraduate volunteers, living more than 1,000 miles from the Ashland School District, are tutoring students in math twice weekly by Zoom. 

The program was developed through a partnership between the civil and community rights leader Roy DeBerry ’70, GSAS MA’78, PhD’79, H ’24, and mathematics professor Rebecca Torrey, who were brought together by the Samuels Center for Community Partnerships and Civic Transformation (COMPACT).

DeBerry has long supported the Benton County community. The Holly Springs, Mississippi native is the executive director and a founder of the Hill Country Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational support to the local school district while recording the stories of Benton County residents who have lived through the civil rights movement.

In June 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, community members sued Benton County to desegregate its school system. The following month, the federal court ordered the school system to initiate a "freedom of choice" desegregation plan, a staggered system allowing black children, depending on their grade, to choose to attend a white elementary, middle or high school in Ashland.  

Today, Ashland High School is more than 90% Black, while nearby Hickory Flat Attendance Center school is more than 90% white. The Brandeis initiative aims to help the under-resourced Ashland school system improve the quality of education and support for students.

“I believe it’s important for kids to get the [educational] exposure they need to compete in our society,” said DeBerry, who is receiving an honorary degree at Brandeis’ 2024 Commencement Exercises. “I knew Brandeis would be the right partner because the university is built around that.”

DeBerry reached out to COMPACT with the hope of creating a Brandeis student-led tutoring program. Working alongside Torrey, the team was able to gather a group of 13 students to tutor over Zoom. 

"Dr. DeBerry recognized that there was great potential in bringing together students from these two schools. Ashland High School is under-resourced and restructuring and experiencing some difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers in certain subjects,” said Torrey. “Brandeis students have the skills and desire to share their learning with these students, and stand to learn a great deal from building relationships with eager high school students from a rural farming community." 

The undergraduate tutors are focusing on math in twice weekly Zoom meetings in two Ashland classes. In these meetings, Brandeis tutors meet individually with small groups of 2-3 students.

“It has gotten off to a great start,” said Torrey. “The math teachers report that the students are excited when they return to their regular classes to talk about what they learned with the tutors." 

Brandeis students are seeing impacts of their own. Dasola Abatan ’27, a neuroscience major and experienced tutor, enjoys watching concepts click for students. 

“These students are willing and want to learn,” said Abatan. “It’s so rewarding to hear them say, ‘Yes, I do understand.’ They’ve been very engaged throughout the process.”

The experience has given Enver Wong ’27 confidence in their future career interests. “I have always known I would be happy going into high-school teaching or academia. This has solidified that,” said Wong. 

“I am so grateful that Dr. DeBerry reached out to me with the idea for this partnership and I deeply appreciate Professor Torrey’s leadership in creating the tutoring program” said COMPACT director Sara Shostak.  “It has been wonderful to see it come together and contribute to the learning of both Ashland and Brandeis students.”

The partnership hopes to continue and extend into other subjects in the Ashland School District.