The Conversation: Freedom Schools mark 20 years of helping children learn to love reading

06/14/2014 7:00 AM

06/14/2014 5:56 PM

Darren Faulkner of Kansas City is an ordained Baptist minister and executive director of Kansas City Freedom Schools, KCFreedomSchools.org, a summer education program for urban children from pre-kindergarten to 17. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Freedom Schools in Kansas City. Nationally the program is run by Children’s Defense Fund. Classes, including a kindergarten boot camp partnership with Kansas City Public Schools, are taught by college-age students who undergo 15 days of intensive training at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tenn. This conversation took place at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, one of nine metro Freedom School sites.

Where did Freedom Schools get its name?

Freedom Schools originated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The idea came out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a national organization created by students at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. It started with college students teaching children in the South how to read during their summer break.

The three college students who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 for staging a rally to register black voters and who were the subjects of the film “Mississippi Burning” were from Freedom Schools. Eventually, like a lot of civil rights organizations, Freedom Schools died out for a while, but it was revived in 1993. Kansas City started its Freedom Schools in 1995, so this is our 20th summer. Ours is the second-longest running Freedom School program in the country.

Where are the classes held?

In Kansas City we have a faith-based approach that is unique in the country. All the Freedom Schools in Kansas City are housed in churches. That is not the case in most cities.

How is your approach different from other summer school or kindergarten readiness programs?

Our goal is to have students fall in love with reading. Not just learn how — fall in love with it.

How do you help a child fall in love with reading?

If you force a child to read it becomes like a chore, and children hate chores, as you know. So we’re not even going to get out the books the first couple of days. We don’t sit at desks, we sit around in a circle, on chairs or on the floor. We go around the circle and talk about life. We ask the students to tell us about themselves, and we show them that we love them genuinely.

Once they know we love them they’ll do just about anything we ask. We don’t have behavior problems. There is no such thing as getting kicked out of Freedom Schools. We don’t tell the students to be quiet, but we instill in them, “when the hands go up, the mouths go shut.” We also say, “one mic,” which means whoever is talking has the mic, and everyone else is listening.

How do you choose reading materials?

In Freedom Schools we use books that are written by people who look like the students we serve and illustrated by artists who make the characters look like the people we serve so that the students can see themselves in the books. The stories we select are stories many of the students have lived. They get so absorbed in it that sometimes when it’s time to move on to a nonreading activity, they don’t want to put the book down.

What kind of nonreading activities do you do?

If the book is about grandma’s apple pie, we might make an apple pie. That way, what they are reading about comes alive for them and connections are drawn between real life and books. We believe that is what makes a person not just literate, but a lifelong reader.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and the Star’s ChowTown blog.

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