Scholars and servant leaders: Freedom School at Francis Burns

By Porsche Barton

COLUMBIA—“It’s Friday at Harambee and Freedom School’s in the house! It’s Friday at Harambee and Freedom School’s in the house!” shouted Francis Burns United Methodist Church Freedom School scholars and servant leader interns July 24.

The group marched in with a pounding energy, cheering and chanting in unison, illustrating the essence of “Harambee” by pulling together for the last time this summer.

It was the last day of the 2015 Freedom School at the church, and the spirit was alive and could be felt throughout the sanctuary. Having completed six weeks of the literacy-based Integrated Reading Curriculum, the group expressed their excitement throughout every cheer and chant they performed.

The 50 self-described scholars included children who attended the program last year plus those new to the Freedom School experience, all who are rising fourth through ninth graders. Along with the scholars, the servant leader interns and Freedom School administration were all thrilled to have successfully completed the program’s second year.

Fulfilling the purpose

The primary goal of the Children’s Defense Fund-sponsored program is to boost student motivation to read, generate more positive attitudes toward learning, increase self-esteem and connect the needs of children and families to the resources of their communities. Francis Burns UMC has continuously worked to fulfill that purpose through Freedom School.

Much like last year, the program followed the same six-week outline, daily schedule and was based around the standards set by the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools model.

“The approach is basically the same: the IRC is the chief and main component of this program throughout the nation because it is a literacy program,” said John Dixon, project coordinator at the Francis Burns UMC Freedom School. “It hasn’t deviated—the general themes ‘I can make a difference’ are still key.”

“The biggest thing we’re trying to instill in them is you can make a difference. At any and every level, we can make a change,” said Site Coordinator Steven Stokes.

“I think the repetitiveness of some of the things they do enable them to really seep in what they don’t even know they’re getting,” said Executive Director Carol Singletary.

Yet, in its second year at the church, some people still do not understand the gist of the program, Singletary explained. It is not a summer camp; it is a program geared towards active learning through comprehensive reading and discussion.

“IRC is the meat of the program, that is the structure and if we really want to do Freedom School the right way, IRC is essential. IRC is Freedom School,” Singletary said, noting the Freedom School sites that best implement the model outlined by the board have the best results.

This year they’ve continued to push forth the idea of common core thinking—challenging scholars to think outside of the box by thinking critically, while also striving for personal empowerment and civic responsibility.

The staff was presented with a unique opportunity to apply the concepts and themes from the IRC to real life events and situations and turn them into teachable moments.

“The ‘I can make a difference in my community’ aspect was especially important because right at the time when we got to that, South Carolina was experiencing so much with the Emanuel 9, the confederate flag removal…so those issues coupled with the themes, it made a difference in these children,” Dixon said. “I think these children had a unique opportunity to see a lot of what was written come to life, and that to me was a plus.”

Stokes agreed: “We were able to explain to the children, this is the situation, now we respond, for one, nonviolently and this is how you make the difference. This is where it starts at.”

With the program’s goal to bridge the achievement gap by fostering summer learning at the forefront, the servant leader interns delivered an IRC built around developmentally appropriate and culturally sensitive books that created thought provoking dialogue about social issues like gang violence, peer pressure and racism.

“We’re not teachers of reading, but we enhance the ability to read and create that interest and fun in reading,” said first-year servant leader intern Laresha McDaniel, noting she plans to use some of the same principles of Freedom School when she teaches middle school in the fall. “The scholars may think they’re not interested at first, but you really have to find a creative way to draw them in.”

“We all engage in different motivational approaches, but we’re all here for the same purpose,” said Benedict College graduate Jeorgie Hicks, who is a returning servant leader intern. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. You can come from any field and have a love for Freedom School after the six-week experience. You’ll always want to come back.”

Strengthening the purpose

This summer, the Freedom School program served more than 12,700 children in 107 cities and 28 states. The program partnered with various schools, local congregations, universities and colleges and community organizations, all of which are unique and have had to figure out how to make the Freedom School structure work at their specific site.

And while there are six other sites in South Carolina and one other site in Columbia, the program finds strength and support in the blessing of being housed in a church.

“One thing that’s unique about the Francis Burns UMC Freedom School is its relationship with the scholars,” Hicks said. “A lot of the scholars attend this church, so they respect the facility that we’re in, which not only allows the servant leader interns to have control of their scholars, but also the scholars that are familiar with the building and how it operates, they’re also in leadership positions because they can actually say ‘oh you can’t go in that room because that’s where they have their meetings, or you can’t touch this book because this book is for Sunday school.’”

As the relationship the scholars have with the church proved to be beneficial, this year, Freedom School has also grown and thrived from the support of the congregation.

“It has the backing and the blessing of the church. I sensed confusion before, however I think this year … it’s clearer through interacting and talking to people in the church,” Dixon said. “There are even more children from the church this time. The blessing of the church is here. People are praying that this program is successful. People are praying the children will get what they need to get. So I feel that.”

Making steps toward improvement

They are still finding their place as newcomers in the Freedom School dynamic, but things are flowing much easier than they did the first year.

“The transitions for this year have been smoother, in terms of what needs to be done…you’re still going to find yourself stuck with how it should be done, as opposed to the first year of what needs to be done. And I think we’ve gotten over that hurdle, when something’s new there will be kinks. Some of those things were a lot smoother…but at the same time, just being in the second year, there’s still some figuring out on how they need to be done,” Dixon said.

“There’s always room for improvement, but I think the positivity and transparency of the staff really made it work,” Stokes said. “The willingness of the team, and the openness makes things flow so smoothly, so seamlessly.”

Hicks said the relationship development has increased a little more.

“The leadership is giving (servant leader interns) the steering wheel, the responsibilities and opportunity to grow as positive leaders, not only for the scholars, but for ourselves and our communities,” Hicks said. “So the leadership is definitely giving us the responsibility to really drive this program in the direction it needs to be driven by supporting our ideas, by supporting our relationships with the scholars and by supporting any suggestions we may have.”

In addition, this time around the servant leader interns were more instrumental in facilitating afternoon team building activities with the scholars.

They organized and facilitated all of the activities, whereas last year, there were outside organizers who came in to teach Zumba, African American history and art classes. These activities not only challenged the scholars, but the servant leader interns were challenged to think outside of the box, as well.

This year, they created a step club where the scholars were taught team building skills—how to be kinesthetic learners by using different body parts to learn different steps and how to work in unison. The scholars also participated in theater and music classes where they learned basic theory and were able to put together skits for their finale performances.

There was also a STEM club, where the scholars learned different things relating to the science, technology, engineering and math fields such as how to defy gravity, build things from various materials and test the durability.

And though they’ve made many improvements, the staff believes there are more adjustments to make in preparation for next year’s Freedom School.

"We have to work on planning and preparing things. It’s really important that we have a plan. We have to set a plan and work that plan. I think there’s some ways we did that better last year than this year,” Singletary said.

Getting parents to maintain their involvement is something they also plan to focus on. Because parents are a huge piece in the Freedom School puzzle, the staff agrees they should work towards getting more parents to volunteer.

Parents must understand their role in helping to pull everything together. We need their help, Singletary said. “We have not been as aggressive with working with parents and that’s something I want to change.”

A world of difference

With blessings from Francis Burns UMC and its sponsors, the 2015 Freedom School has accomplished many things in its second year.

The Freedom School staff maintains high hopes for the success of the program and hopes the scholars have absorbed what they’ve been taught this summer and will continue to apply those concepts in their everyday lives.

“I hope that every time the scholars hear ‘I can make a difference’ … they have something they can fill in the blanks and something they can take away from it. Let them fill in the blanks in their own lives with knowing that they too can make a difference,” Dixon said.

“Even though we are very hard on them, we do care, and we do love them. We just want them to be the best, they are the future. If they have the skills and the ability to do what they need to do, they won’t get left behind in this world,” McDaniel said.

Some of the staff agrees they’ve grown from this experience and will take something away from it as well.

“Seeing scholars go from not wanting to read at all, to reading a little bit…people from the outside looking in don’t see the challenge there, but it’s showing the scholars themselves how that small change has such a big impact and it’s really made a difference in my life and the lives of the SLIs,” Stokes said.

And in upholding the Freedom School’s mission to provide children with a healthy, fair, safe and moral start, the Freedom School staff prayerfully hopes they will continue to make a difference in the lives of the children by empowering them to be agents of change.

“I hope they saw this as the place where people cared about them. But I also hope they saw, because of the books that they read—I hope they leave here feeling that they’re important, that who I am matters, what I do matters and I can make a difference. I want them to believe that they can make a difference,” Singletary said.

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