Eight-year-old, Laci Martin of Compton enjoyed attending her summer literacy enrichment program, so much last year she couldn’t wait to return to Read Lead’s Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School in Lynwood this year.
“Last year I wasn’t a good reader, but now I can read 141 words a minute,” Laci said enthusiastically. “I’ve read so many books this summer, I can’t count how many books I’ve read.”
Laci was one of more than 450 Freedom Schools scholars, ages 5 to 18 celebrating the end of their summer Freedom School program, a six week long program created by the Children’s Defense Fund to prevent the effects of summer learning loss. Throughout the summer, six Freedom Schools sites throughout the Second District, provided these young scholars with a curriculum that was both challenging and entertaining, with activities that included reading, art, dance, music, field trips, athletics and community service.
The model is based on an idea born 50 years ago this summer, during the crucible of the civil rights movement. In 1964, in what came to be called the Mississippi Freedom Summer, when college students from around the nation descended on the state to help African-Americans register to vote and to teach black children as an alternative to Mississippi’s underfunded and segregated school system. For many pupils, the Freedom Schools provided their first introduction to literature by and about black people, encouraging them to both read about and write their own stories.
Fast-forward to 2014, and students in today’s Freedom Schools received similar encouragement. As it did 50 years ago, a love of reading blossomed in these young ones too. That’s crucial, because studies have shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds suffer a significant learning gap during the 11 weeks of summer vacation.
For the nearly 500 children of the Second District Freedom Schools, however, much of that gap was filled with mentoring, lessons and field trips. At the program’s end, children and their teachers gathered at Ladera Park in Los Angeles recently for a special culmination party. In addition to singing, chanting and celebrating their newfound love of reading, they were treated to a reading from Donzaleigh Abernathy, actress, author and daughter of the legendary civil rights leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
She read from her book, Partners to History and told the children how during slavery, reading was not an option for many and in fact, slave owners punished blacks who tried to learn to read.
“I wanted to share that history and that’s why I decided to read the book today,” Abernathy, who knew Martin Luther King, Jr. so well he was like an uncle, said. “ I wrote the book because I love my dad and I love Uncle Martin and they made it possible for me to be free in the world.”
In addition, the students were treated to a special baseball clinic by the Los Angeles Dodgers. They learned about earthquake safety, climbed aboard a fire engine and stopped by the Los Angeles County Public Library’s Urban Outreach Bookmobile.
“All children are entitled to a strong learning environment,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has sponsored 16 sites over the past five years. “Freedom Schools instill an unstoppable love of learning and reading that positively affects every child. It is always an honor to see the desire to learn passed down to generations.”
As part of the program, college students serve as “Servant Leader Interns” who are trained to work as reading tutors and role models, motivating children to develop positive attitudes about themselves and their abilities. For first-time Freedom Schools Community Coalition Servant Leader Intern, Yvette Aragon, 23 of Los Angeles, the finale was bittersweet.
“I’m happy to be here with my scholars but to see the program end makes me sad,” Aragon said. “I’m so proud of them, not just my scholars but all the scholars here. They are dynamic and I know they are going to be future leaders.”
Hellen Keller Read Lead Servant Leader Intern Crystal Leon, 26 agreed with Aragon: “It’s a lot of hard work, dedication and long hours but at the end of the day when you make a difference in someone’s life, it’s all worth it.”