July 8, 2014

For the love of learning: Freedom Schools go above and beyond helping kids grow

Freedom Schools trace their roots to the civil rights movement in the South 50 years ago. The Kansas City Freedom Schools were hit hard by the recession, but the summer urban education initiative may be on the rebound.

It’s Tuned-up Tuesday in the multipurpose room of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Kansas City, a Freedom Schools location. You know it is Tuned-up Tuesday because it is LOUD. Some 80 kids are jumping, clapping and chanting, led by a dozen college interns.

“Tick, tick, tick BOOM, dynamite! Freedom School is tick, tick, tick BOOM dynamite!”

The interns lead the cheers, and the children jump with glee. Just as quickly, they settle down for a slower, inspirational song with motions.

It may look like a summer camp of fun and games, but the Freedom Schools program is serious business.

Students come here, and to five other sites on both sides of the state line, to improve reading and math skills. Parents get an assessment of how their kids are doing. And the schools are supported by Kansas City Public Schools as part of its summer school program.

“It has absolutely been an excellent supplement to what we’re doing,” said Superintendent Steve Green.

But it’s not only about studying, he said. Along with the words on the page come self-esteem and empowerment, Green said.

“Students get over their fears about reading,” he said.

The six-week program, offered through July 18 at the six sites, is for kids ages 4 to 17, but the age limits vary by location. The majority at Mount Pleasant are in elementary school, with some as young as prekindergarten age.

“These babies come in, and they’re shy. They don’t want to participate, they don’t want to be touched. They want to go home,” said the Rev. Darren Faulkner, executive director and CEO of the Kansas City Freedom Schools Initiative. “By the end of the second week, they’re jumping, singing and dancing. They come out of their shells.”

Freeing prekindergartners of their inhibitions is only one item on the sizable to-do list for Freedom Schools. They aim to instill a love of reading and a sense of pride and purpose among kids from sometimes-struggling urban neighborhoods.

Freedom Schools also hold evening supper workshops for the parents, employ college interns (school leaders with minimum 2.5 GPAs and registered voters) and encourage civic involvement and voting.

And this year, in an effort to help kids stay out of gangs, the Freedom Schools Initiative is working with Jackson County Family Court to coach youthful offenders in reading and other subjects, as well as teach them computer repair and entrepreneurial skills.

That program is for young teens who have been charged with or convicted of a not-too-severe crime that may get them suspended from school. It’s the first of its kind in the country.

The family court program is only about a month old serving 10 kids, said Theresa Byrd, director of field services for the court. So far, she said, it’s gotten rave reviews from staff members, who say the students have evolved into enthusiastic readers willing to read aloud.

“They are totally engaged, not because they have to be, but because they want to be,” said Byrd.

Running through it all is community pride. Books in the curriculum are written and illustrated by African-Americans.

“The kids can see themselves in the books, so that adds to their achievement.” Faulkner said. “The thing that makes this successful is the cultural element.”

The Kansas City Freedom Schools program is 20 years old. But really, it’s 50 years old. The program has its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when predominantly white college students went to the South — Mississippi in particular — to hold voting registration drives in the disenfranchised black community.

In the process, they also set up community centers and summer schools where kids could reinforce their reading skills.

The original freedom schools died out but were re-envisioned by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, in 1993. They now operate under the wing of Edelman’s organization.

The Freedom School at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, celebrating its 20th year, is the second-longest-running Freedom School in the country.

There have been setbacks. There was a time when Kansas City Freedom Schools had the largest enrollment of any in the country, said Faulkner. Fifteen hundred scholars, as students are always called, were enrolled at 19 school sites on both sides of the state line.

Then came a series of unfortunate events.

The recession caused churches to cut back on their contributions. Then a multiyear, $12.9 million grant from the Kauffman Foundation reached the end of its life in 2012. Enrollment has since dropped to about 600, and there’s a waiting list every year.

Faulkner is hopeful those times are fading. He cited the partnership with the Kansas City school district and said he sees possibilities ahead for new sources of funding.

“I believe it’s very possible for us to build back in the next several years,” he said.

The school partnership, for instance, allows state per-pupil funding to come into the Freedom School budget via the Kansas City district. For that reason, students in the district get preference when signing up for class.

The school is also supported by the Children’s Defense Fund and donations to reach the $500,000 needed to educate the students this year, Faulkner said.

Despite those difficulties, school leaders say, the academics remain strong.

They point to an analysis by the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium that gives Freedom Schools good marks for reading. The schools had an “overall positive growth rate” in the standardized STAR reading assessment scores, according to the study.

Kansas City Public Schools also has judged it a worthwhile program. Freedom Schools has been a partner since 2005, meaning its programs have been effective enough that kids going through the program get summer school credit.

Green didn’t have figures at hand, but he said the Freedom Schools have included more assessments of proficiency over the years, providing parents with good profiles of how their children are doing.

“It complements what we do,” he said.

There’s even a little natural crossover of Freedom Schools activities into public schools, he said, because some public school teachers also teach summers in Freedom Schools.

The day begins at 8 a.m. with breakfast, followed by what is surely one of the best-loved parts of the day. Harambee.

Part exercise, part motivation, part team building, Harambee is 30 minutes of songs, cheers, stories and shout-outs and a reflective moment of silence. The word means “all push together” in Kiswahili.

The interns lead the familiar cheers, create a silly story from fragments as they pass the mic, and invite students up for “recognition” time, which can be anything from a mention of a cousin’s birthday to a sports team victory. At one point the group sings, with actions, the song “Something Inside So Strong” by Labi Siffre:

“Brothers and sisters, when they insist we’re just not good enough

When we know better

Just look ’em in the eyes and say

I’m gonna do it anyway.”

Freedom Schools are not like other summer schools, say the staff and people who participate in them. No one wears a uniform, and rows of desks are nonexistent.

Instead, students may sit on rugs on the floor, as they do while reviewing letter sounds in the kindergarten class, or scoot in chairs around the perimeter of a room where third- through fifth-graders learn geography.

The scholars are excited as interns Wycla Bratton and Cedrick Robinson bring around an open laptop with pictures of the globe and people in the traditional dress of their countries.

Who can compare and contrast the kimono with the dashiki? And who can name all the continents?

A collective breath seems to be held as one scholar attempts it. And when he’s successful, the group breaks out in the “good job” chant learned earlier for Harambee.

But it’s more than just a recitation of facts. The program is faith-based, but it does not preach a particular religion. Instead, an underlying thread of confidence, mutual support and perseverance runs through the lessons.

A class of first- and second-graders draws comic strips to illustrate the lessons they learned from reading “Dancing in the Wings” by Debbie Allen.

Jazmin Atkins, 7, explains that her strip is about a bird that couldn’t sing and was laughed at, but eventually got better.

Down the table, Alana Lindsay, 8, has a different story. Hers is about five girls at a shopping mall.

“The person who owns the mall is gonna say she can’t shop there anymore. Her friends say, if she can’t, we won’t. They’re going to go to a different mall and shop there.”

The kids in Hannah Banks’ class are doing a similar exercise on the book “Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match” by Monica Brown. The conversation works around to bullying and how to go about speaking positively to one another.

Cameron Hammond, 7, gets it.

“Don’t you know whenever you bully somebody it puts holes through your own heart?” he said.

Teachers and interns are a big part of the program. Interns get extensive training in Knoxville, Tenn., before taking over as class and activity leaders. Once they take their places at school, they are the objects of outright adoration.

At one classroom session discussion on giving compliments, the young scholars had long lists of praise for their interns. Amazing, funny, loving, beautiful, smart, a good teacher. Awesome.

Banks, a fifth-grade teacher in Kansas City, Kan., said her four summers as an intern at Freedom Schools shaped her career path.

“That’s where I found my love for teaching,” she said.

“Everything has a reason, everything has a focus,” Banks said. “I love making a difference in my community with the kids I see each day.”

Jessikha Williams, of Kansas City, attended the school as an 8-year-old and now is an intern. She said the schools’ focus on giving children a healthy, safe and fair start in life appeals to her.

“I love Freedom School and what Freedom School is doing and our focus with teaching (that) kids wouldn’t get in regular school,” she said.

Parents at a recent workshop felt the same way.

Robyn Riley of Kansas City has two grown daughters who attended, and now her granddaughter, Lyric Riley-Allen, 5, is enrolled.

“It gives a sense of pride,” she said. “It gives them confidence so they can achieve things and encouragement so they have the willpower to try something they might not have had the confidence to do.”

Ray Smith of Kansas City put his two children, Ray and Ivori, in Freedom Schools because he wanted a more joyful experience where they could wear summer clothes and not a uniform, as they would have done at his other option, University Academy.

Smith said he likes the emphasis on reading and math and the fact that the program is faith-based.

“I like the energy the interns have with the kids. The kids are more free to be themselves,” he said.

Reggie McKeithen, a Kansas City firefighter and former Freedom School intern, said he wants the same thing for his daughter, 5-year-old Amaiya, that a good suburban school would offer.

“It’s important for African-American children or other minority children to develop a love of reading and books and education,” he said.

So far, the program has had good success with Amaiya.

“She started with her age group but has done so well that she’s moved up to the next class just to be able to challenge her,” he said.

It’s all about providing a welcoming, loving atmosphere, said Faulkner.

“We show our kids we love them. We don’t tell them to sit down and be quiet, or God forbid, shut up,” he said. “When they know we love them and they trust us, they’ll do just about anything we ask them to do.”

Where are Freedom Schools?

The KC Freedom Schools Initiative has six locations this summer in the two Kansas Citys. Two are run by Kansas City Public Schools. The locations:

Metropolitan Baptist Temple, 853 Washington Blvd., Kansas City, Kan.

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, 2200 Olive St., Kansas City.

St. Peter CME, 1419 N. Eighth St., Kansas City, Kan.

Arts Tech/Family Court, 1522 Holmes St., Kansas City (14- to 16-year-olds).

Woodland Early Learning Center (run by KCPS), 711 Woodland Ave., Kansas City (pre-K).

African-Centered College Preparatory Academy (run by KCPS), 3500 E. Meyer Blvd., Kansas City (pre-K through second grade).

Getting involved

The program will start taking applications in March for next summer. Call 816-483-3717, ext. 12, or visit kcfreedomschools.org for more information.

Prospective interns can learn more at kcfreedomschools.org.

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