Freedom School: Fostering a love for reading, a passion for community

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA—This fall, dozens of Midlands students are heading back to school as stronger readers and thinkers thanks to a summer enrichment program that is transforming lives and minds: Freedom School.

A nationwide program started 20 years ago by the Children’s Defense Fund at sites across the nation, Freedom School has been offered locally at Francis Burns United Methodist Church, Columbia, for the last three years. And as their third year wrapped to a close, leaders took a few moments to assess how this year went—and how students are blossoming thanks to an emphasis on a passion for reading and social advocacy.

“It’s been a good year,” said project manager John Dixon, who with executive director Carol Singletary and site coordinator Derrick Hearn ran the six-week program at Francis Burns for rising fourth to eighth graders.

Dixon is careful to point out that Freedom School is not a program to teach children to read. Instead, it’s designed to give children a better appreciation for reading through books and discussions that address real-world situations, from race relations and homelessness to child abuse or the Taliban. The stories selected all have a conflict resolution component built in, so students learn and engage on a variety of levels—such as one book that dealt with a grandparent facing Alzheimer’s and dementia and the ensuing conflict in the family.

“You hear about caregivers, the adults, but Alzheimer’s affects the whole family, not just adults. Here they can talk about it, talk about what they know about it,” Dixon said.

Regarding race relations, Dixon said, the talks this particular year were some of the best to-date given what’s currently occurring in the nation with the shooting of unarmed black men by some police and the rash of retaliatory violence and protests against law enforcement.

“We actually had a chance to talk about ‘black lives matter’ and ‘all lives matter,’” Dixon said—and about how saying “black lives matter” doesn’t mean “only black lives matter.”

“A lot of times parents try to shield kids from knowing things, and a lot of parents don’t talk about these things,” Dixon said.

But at Freedom School, talk they do—and sometimes, that talk sparks a desire for kids to bring about social reform.

A deeper intelligence

Held weekdays 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., most of the day at Freedom School is spent reading and discussing books and their themes in-depth. Freedom School is conducted by servant leader interns: 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. A $10/week cost to families covers books, meals, staff training and several field trips.

Parents really appreciate the program, Dixon said. At parent meetings, several told him said they have seen their children’s confidence levels go up, and often they get full sentences instead of grunts or one-word answers when they talk to their children about how their day went. One shared that her daughter, an eighth grader, was actually watching the news with interest about current events and their impact on her life and her community.

“It’s about building up, fostering deeper intelligence,” Dixon said, noting he has seen the growth in the scholars firsthand. “It propels you to push on and not give up.”

Site coordinator Hearn, a Richland One elementary school teacher and a former servant leader intern, said three separate parents told him this is the first program they didn’t have to bribe their children to go to each day; the students are excited to come and learn.

“The thing I love is that the children can come and be themselves,” Hearn said. “They don’t have to come and be who they are in the neighborhood. They can experience a different way of being a kid, experience a different outlook, and that’s beautiful to me. ”

Hearn said so much of what they do is expose students to a positive dialogue about social issues, particularly when they are reading about more sensitive topics, such as Pakistan and the Taliban.

Parent Barbara Ann Jacobs said it has been a blessing having her son, Treshaun, attend; this was his third summer at Freedom School.

“It doesn’t cost much, and I love what he’s learning,” Jacobs said. “He looks forward to coming every day.”

And that’s the whole point, Hearn said: fostering a love for learning and a love for reading, something that will help these scholars become lifelong citizens and valuable, helpful members of the community.

To learn more about Freedom School and the Children’s Defense Fund, visit To learn more about Freedom School at Francis Burns, call the church at 803-754-1760.

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