Freedom School Comes To WCCUSD
By Destiny Caster
A rising senior at El Cerrito High
Starting with a quiet whisper, Giovani sounded out a word on the page in “Something Happened in Our Town” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard. Marc helped Giovani sound out another word on the page, and the duo slowly made their way through the paragraph.
And as they slowly made their way through the paragraph together, Giovani’s reading confidence grew and he began to speak louder as he got to the end of the paragraph.
For the past month, 50 students, including Giovani and Marc, in grades kindergarten through fifth grade have strengthened their literacy skills and built a community in a safe, fun, and fulfilling learning environment at the Freedom School.
“The best part about Freedom School is the books and field trips,” said Giovani, a rising third grader at Stege.
This summer in partnership with Richmond’s Open Door United Methodist Church, the District sponsored its first Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School.
The CDF Freedom School program is a six-week literacy and cultural enrichment program being operated in 28 states and has served 11,830 children. The program was designed after the original Freedom Schools to serve youth in grades K–12 in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, too expensive, or non-existent according to CDF Freedom Schools.
Nystrom Elementary School is hosting this year’s Freedom School with, 50 children ages 5-11 enrolled mainly from Stege and Nystrom elementary school’s.
“The Freedom School’s goal is to provide a safe, fun, and fulfilling learning environment that provides children whose families can’t afford to send their children to camps or tutors during the summer,” Freedom School Site Coordinator, Tiara Phalon said. “This helps so they don’t fall behind once school starts in the fall.”
Sitting in a circle and take turns reading a paragraph out of the book of the day and pause to discuss what they believe will happen and how that ties into the theme of the week. The goal every week is for the students to develop an appreciation and declare an ownership of their communities, stated Phalon.
For Giovani and Marc, reading “Something Happened in Our Town” helped teach them and the rest of the Freedom School students about racial injustice. Throughout the week, students learned more about racial injustice and how it affects the community around them through sharing their personal experiences and from Servant Learning Intern, Amond Lee.
A Richmond native and UCLA pre-law student, Lee originally heard about the Oakland Freedom School through his professor and found out WCCUSD was hosting one and decided to apply. Servant Learning Interns work with and lead groups of students during the six-week program.
“I incorporate a lot of what I know, being an African Studies and Political Sciences major into what I teach in the classroom.” Lee said.
Lee includes facts on famous African and Latinx people to give students a sense of awareness on reality while they discuss the books they are reading. In addition, the program focuses on helping children discover their potential for leadership and social action, as well as introducing the children to a love of reading.
To help foster a lifelong love of reading, the Freedom School also brings in guest readers throughout the program. So far this year, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and Richmond Promise Outreach & Communications Coordinator Miguel Molina have stopped by the Freedom School to interact with the students through reading, song, and dance.
Freedom School provides a cultural enrichment and emotional growth space for students to continue to develop their literacy skills as they go into the fall Phalon said.
The seven Servant Learning Interns, including Lee, who mentor the children within the program are college students who went to Clinton, Tennessee for a one-week intensive training about the Freedom School.
When the Servant Leader Interns came back from Tennessee, they were prepared to mentor children, and facilitate front-line care and daily themed lessons for students.
Recent Holy Names University graduate, Alejandra Lepez started working with Freedom school this past year and has integrated her study in psychology into what she teaches in the classroom.
Lepez said she focuses on child development within the classroom and helps students strengthen their behavioral skills by “seeing the pattern in the children [...] and seeing how I can better their behavior or just help their reading skills.”.
The Servant Learning Interns work on building the students’ collaboration and communication skills within the classroom by having them help each other while doing circle reading, further instilling the student’s ability to gain confidence, according to Phalon, who has been with the program for 13 years.
Students rehearse the theme of the week through reading books about self identity, family, and community and by doing activities to build their literacy skills and confidence.
“[The theme] varies depending on the week, the books are targeted for the children and have children featured in them that they may know, like black or brown children,” Lepez said “But the books give them a theme to work with. This week we’re learning about what we can do with our country and community.”
The Freedom Schools’ curriculum aligns with Common Core standards, but mainly centers around the book of the day which coincides with the theme of the week Phalon said.
While reading Amy Hest’s “Jamaica Louise Jones”, a book about a spunky eight year-old girl in New York, the students learned how to describe the character and setting and how to recall information to answer a question.
“This week’s theme is community, the theme of the day is making a difference in your community and by making a difference one of the activities was to pick up trash around the school and gardening,” Lepez said. “Some of the children were so excited to learn how to garden and how to recycle. They even brought their own plants!”
The children build their literacy skills by bringing books home given to them from Freedom School to build their personal library, which also encourages their literacy development and confidence at home.
According to Freedom School’s Support Coordinator Ariana Ruiz, “If you can write and read, you can be free.”
For more information about Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom School go to https://www.childrensdefense.org/