By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—Five years after Freedom School first came to the Midlands, the first crop of students is aging out, and they have much to say about the way the literacy program has changed them for the better.
“When I first started I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a camp,’ but over the years as I got more mature, it’s changed me,” said Alexandria Smith, now a high school freshman.
Now, Smith realizes the importance of controlling her behavior, keeping up her reading and striving for a strong vocabulary.
“I’ve learned I’ve gotta go with the flow, and I can’t pitch a fit. It makes me know if I keep a good attitude it will affect someone else,” Smith said. “Also, to get where I want to be, I know I have to keep words in my head. I can’t go to Google for everything.”
Smith, along with her peers Cameron Rumph and Tre’shaun Jacobs, have been going to Freedom School at Francis Burns United Methodist Church since the program started there. A nationwide literacy program that started in 1995, Francis Burns began hosting a program in the Midlands in 2014. It is one of only four in South Carolina.
The Francis Burns School accommodates rising fourth to ninth graders, so this was Smith, Rumph and Jacobs’ last summer. But they all said the program has made a huge impact in their lives.
“Freedom School affected my life very drastically,” Jacobs said. “I was shy before and didn’t want to interact with people around me, not even my friends. But now I like to interact. It’s also taught me to appreciate reading and see it as fundamental—it’s needed for me to succeed and grow.”
“The first year I wasn’t too happy about coming, but then it became OK. I was already a bookworm, and being here really kept up my reading over the summer. It was fun, not tedious,” Rumph said. His favorite book this year was “Forged by Fire.” “I love entering new worlds of imagination.”
Next year, Freedom School might see a bit of change, but in their view, it’s all healthy and positive change. Carol Singletary, who has been the executive director there since the start, thinks she will likely step down as director, though she’ll certainly still be involved financially, physically and spiritually.
Five years later, Singletary said everything is much easier.
“Everyone’s walking in lock step with each other, and this year was really a good year,” Singletary. “It offers so much for the young people who come in. It helps build their confidence to believe they can make a difference. That’s the theme, in fact: ‘I Can Make a Difference’ in myself, my family, my community, my country and my world, and they do believe they can make a difference.”
John Dixon, who has been project director there for the last few years and started as site manager, might also move on as he approaches retirement. He said Freedom School is a real-world help to the students, whom they dub “scholars.”
“It’s not a camp,” Dixon said, and they choose young, innovative servant leader interns to lead the youth. SLIs are students aged 19 or older who have completed their first year in college and have a 3.0 GPA and a voter registration card. “It’s intentionally fresh, and they relate to kids. We use Integrated Reading Curriculum, which is motivation-based literacy, unique and clever, not tried and true, so the SLIs’ teaching methods might include technology, or using beatbox sounds to accompany the scholars, who might decide to rap as they explain the meaning of Chapter 2.
“I’ve heard testimonies from parents what a difference going to Freedom School just one year has made in some of their children,” Singletary said. “One of our grandparents said when her grandchild, who’d been struggling the year prior, went back to school, the teacher asked, ‘What did you all do this summer with him? He’s just so different, doing so much better.’ She said, ‘Well, we sent him to Freedom School.’ That’s the kind of impact Freedom School has. It does wonderful things for young people and gives them a real desire to learn.”
Laresha McDaniel spent her first year as site coordinator this summer; previously she served three years there as an SLI. A seventh-grade math educator, McDaniel said Freedom School really does help the students prevent the dreaded summer reading loss. Plus, she said, it’s rewarding to come back and see the faces she’s known, some now for years.
“We’ve really built relationships with most of these kids,” McDaniel said.
The school operates through grants and contributions from church members. A minimal weekly cost to families covers books, meals, staff training and several field trips.
For more on Freedom School at Francis Burns, call the church at 803-754-1760. To learn more about Freedom School nationally, as well as the Children’s Defense Fund, visit www.childrensdefense.org/programs-campaigns/freedom-schools.