Freedom School Program Liberates Kids in Probation Camp

Marquise, 16, never enjoyed going to school. The teen, angry and often in trouble, ultimately landed at one of the county’s juvenile probation camps. Life was not looking good for him. But then he was introduced to the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program at Camp Afflerbaugh in La Verne, one of 18 juvenile probation camps operated by Los Angeles County. The five week academic enrichment program, which is based on the state curriculum and stresses literacy, builds self-esteem and a love of learning, was totally unfamiliar and at first Marquise was skeptical.

The change in mindset, however, came immediately. The youths in the camp, ages 13 to 17, suddenly found that learning could be fun. They began their day at 8 a.m. sharp with a 30-minute activity called Harambee, a Swahili word for pulling together, to sing and dance and read—something completely different from the somber, punitive atmosphere commonly found in a probation camp.

Within a few days, Marquise began to look forward to Harambee.

“It brings my spirit up,” he said, smiling widely.

Also, he began reading books—something he never enjoyed before. His favorite was Mexican White Boy, by Matt de la Peña about a young boy who is always an outsider and has never known his father. Through reading, Marquis realized he was not alone.

“That boy didn’t have a dad either,” he said. “Reading became something to do to keep me out of trouble.”

Since 1995, more than 100,000 children nationwide have enrolled in the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools and more than 14,000 college students and young adult staff have been trained to lead the groups. Usually held in mainstream schools, the five week pilot program at camps Fred C. Miller in Malibu and Afflerbaugh in LaVerne is the first of its kind in California. The philosophy is: “I Can and Must Make a Difference in My: Self, Family, Community, Country, and World, with Hope, Education and Action.”

The results speak for themselves.

Camp educators and probation officers started seeing fewer fights, fewer suspensions and more interest in the classroom. Attitude among the youths evolved from wary and angry to openness and with an increase in self-confidence.

“Before Freedom Schools, it was the Mexicans versus the blacks,” said David, 16. “But now it’s like it is all of us.”

Before the Freedom School program began, the youngsters were told not to speak above a whisper; now they were encouraged raise their voices in chants, songs and raps; before, the guards would treat them like adversaries; now they were embraced and treated with respect.

“The kids are enjoying it and like what it is bringing to them,” said Alberto Ramirez, Director of Residential Treatment Services Bureau at the camps. “Their relationship to the staff is moving in a positive direction. That benefits the kids and also the staff.”

Ramirez warned however, that much work still needed to be done. At any moment, a young man could say or do something that could trigger a fight. And keeping the kids on track will be a challenge when they are sent back out to the schools and neighborhoods where they first landed in trouble.

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has advocated for educational reforms at the camps and sponsored Freedom Schools in his district for the past four years, said the Freedom School’s emphasis on literacy and learning is one of the most effective ways to change a youngster’s life.

“The message of the Freedom Schools is so affirming and empowering that it was important to bring that to the probation camps,” he said. “The salvation for probation is education. The best opportunity for these youngsters to turn their lives around is to educate them.”

The hope is to continue with the Freedom School program—or at least Harambee—year-round in the camps. The Freedom School model complements the Road to Success Academies implemented by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which emphasize interactive learning and positive feedback rather than punitive measures to educate youths at the county’s probation camps.

Other projects to increase educational opportunities for young people in camps are in the works. They include the Camp Kilpatrick Replacement Project, which seeks to replace that juvenile probation camp with a more rehabilitative, evidence-based approach to juvenile incarceration similar to programs developed in Missouri. In addition, there are efforts underway to find effective ways for youths to receive support and guidance after they are released from camps.

For now, these five weeks at Camp Afflerbaugh’s Freedom School have given some of the young men a second chance.

“I used to get Ds and Fs in school,” said David, 16. “Now I want my family to know I get Bs and Cs. And I want to go to college and become a counselor so I can help other kids learn how to read.