Francis Burns’ Freedom School marks 10th year

(Photo by Jessica Brodie)

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA, S.C.—A decade ago, the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School was a fledgling experiment at Francis Burns United Methodist Church.

Organizers hoped to strengthen literacy in a new and different way in their local community by enabling rising fourth through ninth graders to hone their reading comprehension skills, engage in dialogue about key social justice issues and ultimately become the kind of critical thinkers needed in the world.

Today, they just completed their 10th anniversary, celebrating what Executive Director Carol Singletary called “a village effort” that has transformed the youth, the church and the neighborhood for the better.

On July 27 at 6 p.m., 32 Freedom School scholars, as well as their servant leader interns and administrative staff, gathered before a packed crowd at Francis Burns UMC to showcase the hard work they accomplished this summer, as well as celebrate the difference 10 years of Freedom School has made in their community.

Fostering a desire to read

Freedom School was held for six weeks every weekday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., throughout June and July. Most of the day was spent reading and discussing books and their themes in-depth. The books they read are designed to provoke deep thought about relevant social issues, such as “Bessie the Motorcycle Queen” by Charles R. Smith Jr., about trailblazer Bessie Stringfield. In 1929, 18-year-old Bessie, a Black woman, hopped on her motorcycle and headed out on an adventure, crisscrossing the country through small towns, big cities and open spaces.

In addition, Freedom School brings in guest speakers, who read texts aloud during the morning Harambee gathering.

Freedom School was started by the Children’s Defense Fund in 1995. It is based on Mississippi Freedom Summer, which itself grew out of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Movement, which encouraged Black voter registration. The primary goal is to help scholars acquire a desire to read, which ultimately reduces the achievement gap during the summer.

Freedom School is conducted by servant leader interns, or SLIs, who 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. Parents are also required to participate through volunteering and a weekly meeting. The school operates through grants and contributions from church members.

High-energy celebration

The high-energy 10th anniversary celebration kicked off with “Ella’s Song,” sung by the 2023 scholars, and then an enthusiastic welcome from Carmen White, this year’s site coordinator. White started at Freedom School, then became a junior SLI and an SLI before becoming site leader. She is also an Ella Baker trainer and serves as an extension of the national CDF Freedom Schools staff.

Next came inspirational quotes and a prayer from Laresha McDaniel, project director, followed by presentations from each of the classes. Mr. Khalil’s class did a rap inspired by “Bessie the Motorcycle Queen,” Ms. Isis’s class did a skit about the book “Stacey’s Extraordinary Words” and Mr. Myles’ class produced a video about “The Anxiety Toolkit for Teens.”

McDaniel recognized those students aging out of the program by entering the ninth grade. White shared about the National Day of Social Action, which had a gun violence focus. Next, Michael Cantey led Level 2 scholars in an African drumming demonstration. Then Singletary recognized three people who helped the school tremendously: Dr. Ernest Etheredge, Rebecca Eleazar and Dr. John Dixon.

“If we ever needed a God, we need him now. If we ever needed Freedom School, we need it now,” Dixon said, underscoring the importance of Freedom School in the world today.

Freedom School’s advisory board presented Singletary with a surprise gift as a way to thank her for her excellent leadership over the past decade.

“We thank you, we love you and we appreciate you,” said Rachel Bourke as they made the presentation.

To learn more about Freedom School and the Children’s Defense Fund, visit

For more on Freedom School at Francis Burns, email [email protected].

To view photos from the 10 year celebration:

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