A group of 100 children flooded into the International School at Gregory gym to sing, dance and listen to a guest reader share a book with them.
Though it was first thing in the morning, the children, ranging from third to eighth graders, were full of energy as they performed their morning harambee, a Kenyan tradition of community self-help.
The harambee included songs and chants, dancing and stomping, and a reading of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book Just Help!, shared by school board Chairwoman Stephanie Kraybill.
The harambee starts off each day at the Freedom School, a summer school program hosted by Communities in Schools.
The Freedom School model was developed by the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit focused on child advocacy and research, to promote academic and personal growth in students through reading culturally relevant books. It is used in communities across the country.
“I’m just happy that we can spark inspiration and happiness and joy in learning,” said Keisha Robinson, the site coordinator and program director for Freedom School.
Students in the program attend Freedom School from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for six weeks in the summer. The days mostly consist of reading and cultural activities, and include breakfast and lunch through New Hanover County Schools and snacks provided by donors.
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Robinson said the program is rooted in the civil rights movement, and one of the main aspects is to teach students how they can use their voice for good.
This aligns with the Children’s Defense Fund’s mission of giving children a “healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood.” The organization’s goals with Freedom School is to encourage academic and character-building enrichment, family involvement, civic engagement and social action, among other goals.
“We talk about different social action topics and we talk about how they feel about it and how they would get their voice out, how they would let their feelings be known in a respectful manner,” Robinson said.
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The program helps students learn to create informed opinions on important topics and empowers them to use their voice to express those opinions.
It also aims at addressing learning losses and mental health struggles caused by COVID-19, while also creating trusting relationships with adults in the community, filling nutrition needs, celebrating diversity and empowering students to make a difference in their community and world.
The Freedom School serves mostly students of color, and the books they read and activities they do reflect that. They’re also led by interns, many who are college students or recent college graduates attending historically Black colleges and universities across the South.
Communities in Schools Communications Manager Kendall McGee said this allows students to see their potential to go to college and particularly to pursue a career in teaching. She said high school students who participated in the Freedom School when they were younger have moved on to be youth volunteers with the program.
In its third year in New Hanover County, staff with Communities in Schools said they have seen the program grow significantly. This year, it serves around 100 students. In past years, Freedom School has been broken into two locations to accommodate the families wanting to participate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robinson said she's also seen an increase in community awareness and support for the program over the last few years.
She said she loves the Freedom School program because she can see students starting to love learning during the six-week program.
“We can foster a love of learning, we just have to meet our kids where they are,” she said.
Reporter Sydney Hoover can be reached at 910-343-2339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Freedom School aims to promote literacy, empower young voices