Freedom School aims to help Detroit kids beat the odds

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit – They’re called “scholars,” not little kids.

Hope Village Freedom School project director Claricha Evans and servant leader intern Andrienne Wells get the children motivated during the Hope Village Freedom School program 'Harambee' session which instead of keeping the children quiet and in their chairs, motivates the students with cheers, chants, motivational songs and dancing in Detroit, Michigan on June 22, 2016.

They’re praised when they raise their hands to ask questions like “Where is Greece?” and when an adult asks them, “How are you doing,” the room electrifies.

The 40 kindergarten through second-graders, seated cross-legged on the floor at the HOPE Village Freedom School, spring to their feet and with arms waving in the air, they loudly respond, “We’re fantastic, we’re terrific, all day long.”

Then, quietly seated back on the floor, they excitedly wait for the guest reader to begin “Letters from Felix: A Little Rabbit on a World Tour,” written by Annette Langen.

It is the first week of a six-week education program hosted at Focus: HOPE’s Children Center on Oakman Boulevard.

This summer’s Freedom School is part of the HOPE Village Initiative – a long-term partnership of Focus: HOPE that organizers say is designed to radically change the odds of success for children and families in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The HOPE Village Initiative’s goal is to have 100 percent of residents be educationally prepared, economically self-sufficient and living in a safe and supportive environment by 2031.

Students including Charles Potts strike a pose at a line in a song,"Something inside so strong" during the morning 'Harambee' session.

Reading, reading and more reading is the main focus of the school.

The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program seeks to build strong, literate, and empowered children by providing summer and after-school reading with a goal of preventing summer learning loss and closing achievement gaps.

That also is the hope of parent Lakeisha Johnson.

She has a daughter, Jurnee Graham, 5; and son, Kaleb McLaurin,7, in the program.

“I think this school is a great idea because reading is very important to me,” said Johnson. “I didn’t get to do much reading when I was younger. But you have to start kids reading early, so I read to them every day, and they love it. They’re going to need to learn to read early in order to succeed.”

After the morning session, which includes a guest reader, motivational song, cheers and chants, and other group activities, students divide into groups of 10 and go inside classrooms where they sit in tiny chairs to, once again, listen to a Freedom School classroom leader read them a book.

The books, explains project director Claricha Evans, are “culturally relevant.”

Native Americans, African Americans, Asians and Latinos are featured on the covers.

“The students should be exposed to culturally relevant reading material so they’ll see themselves in books, and ultimately fall in love with reading,” she said.

Evans said the focus on reading is working.

“We’ve seen results in increasing reading levels because we do a pre- and post-assessment at the end and we’ve seen as much as 10 months of reading level growth in six weeks.”

Project leader Stephanie Moore said the program is at work in eight Detroit sites this summer, as well as in Flint, Lansing, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. She said she was introduced to Freedom Schools in Chicago in 2011 and helped to start two sites there.

“We also work directly with families here and every week we have an event and provide child care and dinner so the parents can engage in strategic planning and have a voice in the development of programs over time,” she said.

The CDF Freedom Schools program is rooted in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and the involvement of college-age activists.

The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 was organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Council of Federated Organizations, which led a campaign to ensure basic rights for all state residents, especially the ability to vote.

The effort included Freedom Schools, which provided reading instruction; a humanities curriculum emphasizing English, foreign languages, art and creative writing; and a general math and science curriculum. The schools were structured to motivate young people to become engaged in their communities and to help them identify and design solutions to local problems.

The Freedom Schools movement was reborn under the leadership of Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’ Defense Fund's Black Community Crusade for Children campaign.

Site coordinator Bryan Eason offered encouragement to young scholars who raised their hands to ask questions. He also played the drums during the cheers and songs.

“I want to see this program grow and glue this community together,” said Eason. “This program in this community is working.”

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