Freedom Schools Live to Teach Reading
Founded in the civil rights era to meet the challenge of white supremacist school systems, today's activist students fan out each summer to teach an essential skill: literacy.
That seemed to me as thoughtful a description of one large part of the problem as anything offered by sociologists with doctorate degrees.
So where do these remarkable young teachers come from? Amazingly, by word-of-mouth, says Dr. Jeanne Middleton-Hairston, the national director of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools program. The CDF doesn't advertise. Churches and other local community organizations who hear of the program can apply to partner with the CDF. The request, via an application form, is due by October. The first meeting with partnering organizations takes place in February. By the end of May, each partnering organization has determined ''interns'' who will become freedom school teachers. ''I don't really want to market this,'' says Middleton-Hairston. ''As it is we're trying to keep up (with demand) now.''
And what goes on in a freedom school? Encouragement to read, of course, with books and close attention from the freedom school interns. There are group activities. The schools are thematic. This year's overall theme: ''I can make a difference.'' There are also weekly sub-themes: self, family, community, country, world and hope. The full curriculum called ''the Integrated Curriculum'' promotes cooperative learning, critical thinking and interpersonal skills. Parents and adult family members are expected to participate in the program. The schools offer parent education programs. The schools also provide breakfast and lunch.
Freedom schools may not have changed entire school systems yet, but they have certainly changed lives. Examples abound. Two years ago, 11-year-old Virna Ocasio was in and out of school. Her home life was difficult. Then, after ending up in a women's shelter after wandering the streets of Rochester, N.Y., with her older sister, she became involved with the program. Now 13, she is on the honor roll at the city's East High School. ''Freedom School is her consistent family,'' says La' Mont Geddis, director of the Rochester freedom school program.
''It's like pouring water into a desert, this program,'' says Taj Brown, the Freedom School manager for capacity and development. ''We have an opportunity to create an entire environment for children.''
And these freedom schools represent more than a summer education program. Speaking to a gathering of students who had been participating for three or more years, 30-year-old Jelaya Liles, who became involved with the program as a 22-year-old, reminded them that they were literally on the first rung of a ''leadership ladder--the freedom school rung.'' More from them is expected and needed, she says. ''I need y'all to change the world.''
Charles Cobb Jr. is senior analyst for All Africa. His latest book is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.