August 2017

by DeeGee Lester, Director of Education, The Parthenon

Photography by Keep3

The dream of college seems far off to elementary and middle school children. For many children, it seems not only remote, but impossible. So why wait? For 37 years, children ages 5–12 have had the opportunity to experience college life through Fisk University’s unique Beth Madison-Howse Mini-College.

The brainchild of Ingrid Collier in a proposal to then-president Walter Leonard, Mini-College was directed for 32 years by Beth Madison-Howse, special collections librarian and a descendant of Ella Shephard-Moore, one of Fisk University’s original Jubilee Singers.

Inspired by this historical college setting, children enter timidly and then enthusiastically into the college-like environment utilizing university buildings (the library, gym, little theater and music building) and scheduled on the traditional M-W-F and T-TH college calendar. Every child takes the full class offerings, including art/pottery, math, Spanish, fitness, music (including African dance and drumming), speech and writing, computer animation and robotics. Fridays at Mini-College are reserved for field trips, movies, and other enriching experiences.

With the death of Madison-Howse in 2012, drama professor Persephone Felder-Fentress volunteered to do the grunge work to keep the Mini-College going during a director search. “One day I asked, have you found someone? and got the answer, yeah, we’re looking at her. And that’s how I became director,” Felder-Fentress laughs. “Mini-College is a huge production. Howse left this little gift for me. She had organized everything on USB. That was just her. The family also came to my rescue and continues to help.”

The excitement of learning and self-discovery fills every classroom. An impromptu visit finds 11- and 12-year- olds glazing clay pieces for firing under the direction of Fisk Art Institute’s Alecia Henry. Next door, a little girl wearing a “Make Your Own Magic” t-shirt reflects the positive exploration of self in a “Life’s Little Lessons” class for 5- and 6-year-olds, led by TSU education major Gershom Jordan, as they are encouraged to “find something positive about themselves.”

On July 14, the six weeks of Mini-College concluded, as in years past with a Finale at Jubilee Hall including performance, art displays, and a silent auction, which provides funding for programs, supplies and scholarships.

Artist-in-Residence Alecia Henry working with students on designing and painting clay slabs

Through the years, Mini-College has become a feeder system as many children developed a special love for Fisk, later enrolling there for college, and, as adults, sending their own children to Mini-College.

“It’s amazing how many living on the periphery of Fisk have never walked onto the campus,” says Felder- Fentress. “For some, it is intimidating.” But there is that moment. “One parent who lives in the neighborhood had never been on campus. She later said when she walked across Fisk, something came through her spirit. She decided at that moment, I have to get my child in this program.” The Beth Madison-Howse Mini-College continues to serve as the gateway for many families to a vision of college life and graduation.

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