Freedom Schools Have Kids Singing, Dancing – and Learning – with JoyPublished Tuesday, September 21, 2010
It’s their favorite part of the day, so when the first notes of the Harambee music sounded Derek, 9, and Julius, 8, leaped from their seats.
They danced and twirled along with their after-school mates, jumping and singing “I am strong” and “Yes, I can” to the Hallelujah Song and others meant to teach them that all children are important and should be valued.
The music stopped after a few minutes, and Tahisha Legrand, a service leader intern at Trinity Church’s Freedom School program in Miami Gardens, took the microphone and guided the children back to their seats.
“Close your eyes now and bow your heads. Breathe in the positive energy,” Legrand told the fifty or so after-schoolers. “Remember that we want to listen to our teachers, to our parents and to keep our hands to ourselves. We want to participate 100-percent and to remember to be kind to each other.”
The Harambee tradition began hundreds of years ago in Kenya where villagers learned that communities thrived when everyone “pulled together” – the meaning of the word. Marian Edelman Wright breathed new fire into the tradition in 1995 when the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) launched Freedom Schools.
Today more than 80,000 children nationally have been Freedom Schooled, and locally the approach is offered year-round at Trinity Church and Belafonte Talcolcy Center, and at South Dade Weed and Seed, Teen Upward Bound, Overtown Optimist Club and Divine Sports in the summer. These programs are all Children’s Trust-funded.
As part of this highly structured program, college interns and AmeriCorps volunteers promote literacy by using books that highlight the accomplishments of African-Americans and other people of color. Community professionals visit the program; their stories and experiences instill personal and community pride. Harambee and other activities help to make learning fun, while teaching values that help children succeed in school and in life.
Linda Freeman, executive director of Peacemakers Service Centers at Trinity, oversees the summer camp and after-school program.
Freeman moved to Miami 11 years ago and joined Trinity Church at its location in North Miami at the time. She helped to create Peacemakers, a vehicle to address the dearth of needs in the community. Trinity was also among the first group of providers in Miami to receive Children’s Trust funding after its creation in 2002.
The children’s program continued to expand, then in 2009, Freeman was invited as part of a delegation to visit Haley Farm, the CDF training facility in the foothills of the Tennessee Mountains. A presentation of the Freedom Schools wowed her.
“The kids got great encouragement, and you could see how excited they were to learn – you can’t pay for that,” she remembers.
The schools follow a set model that encourages routine and helps maintain consistency in quality. The structure sows stability and safety in children who may lack it in their daily lives. Because the program is so focused on improving literacy, a large number of books are required as part of the curriculum. The books are costly – as most textbooks are – yet are essential to the focus and integrity of CDF’s model.
In addition to literacy and academic enrichment, the Freedom Schools highlight parent and family involvement; civic engagement; nutrition/health and mental health; and intergenerational leader development.
Student leader interns serve as important role models and are pivotal to the program’s success. Legrand, in her second year with Freedom Schools, will soon be tackling master’s degree studies in political science and history. Wendy Pierre earned her B.A. in early education with ESOL endorsements from Florida Atlantic University. These and the other high energy interns – such as Jose Ferdinand, engage the children, reading out loud to them, sitting beside them to do their homework, dancing and singing with them.
All student leaders attend the 8-day intensive Young Adult Leadership Training, also held at the Haley Farm in Tennessee. “It’s one of the most intense trainings I’ve ever been a part of, up at 5 a.m. and going until late at night,” said Legrand.
The program is labor intensive. Freedom School standards require that the student-to-teacher ratio not exceed 10-1. In these small groups and through consistent interaction, teachers get to know their students and their learning styles; bonds of trust are built. Children at risk of tumbling from the education system are reengaged in the learning process.
“The kids see someone who’s gone to college, who likes it and who’s succeeding. They get an important role model,” Freeman says. The connections that develop have other benefits.
“We see improvements in attendance – kids don’t want to miss Freedom School sessions,” Freeman says. The program’s emphasis on the core message that “I can make a difference” appears to be effective too in altering how students see themselves and their own possibilities in life.
For the summer camp last summer, Freeman explained that the 60 children chosen were a mix: a third from Trinity’s Children of Inmates program, children whose parents are incarcerated; a third or so of children who’d been labeled as poor students or learners at school; and a group of honor roll students.
“They all learned and did well – you couldn’t tell the difference,” Freeman says. “The experience just emphasized that we’re all important, that we all have value – that’s the message of the Freedom School.”
Written by Michael R. Malone