Unlike a lot of summer school programs that kick off with a daily announcement over the intercom, Freedom School is ushered in each day with the rich, steady beat of drums.
“Scholars,” as they’re known here, motivate each other through dance and chants, an integral part of “Harambee.”
Swahili for “Let’s pull together,” Harambee sets the tone at Freedom School, a six-week summer literacy program being offered by Osseo Area Schools for the first time.
The program was created by the National Children’s Defense Fund in 1992 as a way to stop the summer reading slide. It was inspired in part by the 1964 Summer Freedom Project, a political action movement designed to engage black residents in Mississippi.
“It’s taking the spirit of that and transfusing that into our scholars so they can make a difference in themselves, they can make a difference in their community, so they can make a difference in the world,” said Tony Hudson, the school district’s equity director.
The free program is offered about 200 sites around the country, including a few in the Twin Cities.
Hudson said Osseo Area Schools decided to begin offering Freedom School because it was good fit with the district’s equity plan, which aims to boost achievement across a racially diverse student population.
‘It’s going to help’
In the Osseo district, the program, which runs through July 25, is being offered at North View Junior High and Brooklyn Junior High, two schools that serve large populations of students living in poverty. About 150 students are participating.
“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s going to help,” Hudson said. “You look at some of the research that [the National Children’s Defense Fund] has done, and children that were involved in Freedom School for more than one year, they not only eliminate the summer reading slide, they begin to experience the academic gains as well.”
Every day opens with Harambee. During that time, a community member comes to read to Freedom School students. So far this year, the Osseo program has hosted educators, a local artist and a Twins manager.
After that, students are broken into groups by age. Then they participate in a reading program led by college students, known as servant leader interns, who have been trained by the Children’s Defense Fund in Tennessee.
Many of those college students are interested in becoming teachers, or have a strong connection to the community that Freedom School serves.
Funmi Arogbokun, is a student at Butler University in Indianapolis who has a double major of chemistry and biomedical engineering. A Gates Millennium scholar who graduated from Osseo High School, Arogbokun said she decided to participate in Freedom School as a way of giving back to the community that inspired her.
She described the intern training in Tennessee as intense, but rewarding.
“It was exciting to be around that many people who want to change the world,” she said. “It was a passionate place.”
Hooking kids on books
Equally rewarding, Arogbokun said, is the daily interaction with Freedom School students.
The students have varying reading skills. Some love to read. Some don’t.
Freedom School aspires to engage them by offering culturally relevant books, or, in other words, books about issues and people to whom they can relate.
“Each book has that self-reflection piece,” said Courtney Gulyard, the North View site director. “All of the books included in the series are all about how they can see their image inside of those. Normally in our school system we don’t have those rich texts, so you have that disconnect with reading. Not here.”
In the class geared for soon-to-be seventh-graders, the Freedom School scholars recently finished “Joseph” by Sheila P. Moses. The books tells the story of a 14-year-old boy trying to find his own path in life despite having a mother who is addicted to drugs and a father serving with the military in Iraq.
The book hooked 12-year-old Sherrod Russell right up until the open-ended conclusion.
“I hated the ending,” he said emphatically. “The ending was terrible. I though there would be more. Like, I wanted to know if his mom is going to stop doing drugs or if the dad is going to come back and bring him to a new home.”
The books get students to talk. And that’s one of the missions of Freedom School — engaging kids at their level.
‘How can we change?’
It certainly worked for Hudson, who served as a Freedom School servant leader intern when he was a college student in the 1990s.
At the time, he was struggling in school. In fact, he had just received a letter from his college ordering him to bring up his grades, or else.
But through the program, he found inspiration. He became determined to get involved in his community and make it better. His grades improved, and he embarked on a career in teaching, and later served as a principal at Edinbrook Elementary in Brooklyn Park
“When we’re trying to find programs aimed at closing the achievement gap, typically we look at how problems are tied to the child,” he said. “What is the child doing that we can help them do differently? How can we intervene?
“But what we need to do is look at the organization and the program and, as adults, ask what we can do differently. How can we change?
“That’s the difference with Freedom School. It accepts children for who they are.”