Olive Wright Covington: Sister, Teacher

If one word describes me, it would be TEACHER.
—Olive Wright Covington

This summer my big sister Olive Wright Covington passed away. Olive was a beloved daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, aunt, church and community leader, mentor, and friend, and throughout her life she was respected and loved as a gifted and passionate educator. The Children’s Defense Fund is especially grateful for her service laying the foundation for the flagship CDF Freedom Schools® program.

Olive left our hometown of Bennettsville, South Carolina to attend Fisk University in Nashville, and after graduation returned to South Carolina, where she began her professional life teaching in schools at every level. She then moved to Washington, D.C. with her husband and two daughters, Joy and Maggie, where she taught in the D.C. Public Schools for eight years. Alongside her work in the classroom, she began developing and leading teacher training programs. After she retired she moved back to Bennettsville, and there she began a new phase of “retirement” supporting CDF Freedom Schools’ early development.

The CDF Freedom Schools movement has its roots in the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Schools founded by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project. Olive helped design the vision for the new generation of Freedom Schools programming that would serve children’s needs 30 years later. The church parsonage in Bennettsville where I was born and raised became the incubator and curriculum laboratory for the CDF Freedom Schools pilot program. Marlboro County, South Carolina, along with Kansas City, Missouri and seven other sponsors, hosted the first official CDF Freedom Schools sites in the summer of 1995.

Olive understood the deep need for opportunities like this in communities like ours. Many local children had nothing to do between May and August when school was not in session. Elementary school students wound up babysitting younger siblings; teenage pregnancy rates were high; and children who were eligible for nutritious breakfasts and lunches from the federal school meals program during the school year were going hungry. Meanwhile, many local students who’d gone on to college were not coming home during the summer because there weren’t enough work opportunities, so younger children were missing the chance to get to know those older students from their neighborhood and church communities as mentors or role models. Olive was able to help make the connections between those needs and the potential of the CDF Freedom Schools program, which is staffed by trained college-aged “servant leaders” and in some cases teachers and serves children in communities across the country where quality academic summer and after-school enrichment programming is limited, too expensive, or non-existent. Since 1995, more than 150,000 children in grades K-12 have had the CDF Freedom Schools experience.

Olive’s work formed the basis for the Integrated Reading Curriculum, the research-based, multicultural curriculum at the center of the CDF Freedom Schools Experience that supports children and their families through the five key components of high-quality academic enrichment; parent and family development; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health, and mental health. She also helped develop rituals like the program finale that are still a key part of the CDF Freedom Schools experience because she understood how meaningful it would be for families and the larger community to be able to come together to see and celebrate the children’s accomplishments.

Olive emphasized parent involvement from the very beginning. She understood that some of the opportunities CDF Freedom Schools programs provided for scholars, like field trips to local museums and landmarks and the wide range of culturally diverse books used in the classrooms, were also new to the children’s parents and the college-aged servant leaders. She embraced the chance to share this education with all three generations. In Bennettsville she was well known for encouraging individual parents, complementing them for finding ways to stay involved in their children’s education, and telling them that they were doing a good job and she was proud of them. Some of those parents report today that they were inspired to go back to school themselves and even to find jobs in the local school system because of the support and encouragement they received from my sister.

These parents sensed something many people felt about Olive. She loved people, poured every ounce of herself into the people around her, and made every person feel important. She led by example as she taught young servant leaders that if they wanted more out of their students, they needed to give more, and they rose to the challenge. She loved the theologian Howard Thurman and quoted his teachings at many ceremonies, sharing principles such as “If we love a child, and the child senses from our relationship with others that we love them, he will get a concept of love that all the subsequent hatred in the world will never be quite able to destroy.”

Olive helped make sure the trainings for the servant leaders went beyond lesson planning. She encouraged them to focus on discerning their calling and purpose and asking themselves what they could do for the students in their care that no one else could do. At exit interviews she asked people to tell her what they had learned from their experience and how they would affect children’s lives positively going forward. It was little surprise that many of those she mentored went into education, the ministry, and other ways of serving and caring for others.

After Olive passed away, some of the many people whose lives she had touched remembered how she would not take no for an answer when it came to getting things done, and how she embodied the philosophy of “passing it on,” constantly reminding others that it only takes one spark to keep a flame going. Others remembered her gracious elegance, and how she again taught by example that you should always give others your very best. I am so grateful to know how many other people looked up to my sister as I always did, and I hope her example will keep inspiring others to follow in her footsteps too.