I Can Make a Difference: Freedom School at Francis Burns

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA—Fifty students across the Midlands are back in school this fall armed with sharper minds, more compassionate hearts and a better idea of ways they can make a difference in the world around them. And it’s all thanks to Freedom School.

A nationwide literacy program started 20 years ago by the Children’s Defense Fund, Freedom School has been offered locally at Francis Burns United Methodist Church for four years now.

“It was a successful year,” said Project Director John Dixon on the last day of Freedom School this summer, taking a break to chat with the Advocate as he showed a class of fifth and sixth graders a service project they could help with.

Dixon, who ran the program with executive director Carol Singletary and site coordinator Jeorgie Hicks, said the program’s “I Can Make a Difference” theme had a great impact on the students, whom they dub “scholars.” Every week, the school delved into a new aspect of how scholars can make a difference: in oneself (Week One); then in the family, community, nation and world; and wrapping up for Week Six with how scholars can make a difference through hope, education and social action.

Freedom School is designed to give children a better appreciation of reading through books and discussions that address real-world situations, from race relations to poverty and more. The eye-opening books change yearly and are selected by experts across the nation. This year included titles such as “Sweet Music in Harlem,” by Debbie A. Taylor; “When Grandmama Sings,” by Margaree Mitchell; “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark,” by Debbie Levy; and “Joseph,” by Shelia P. Moses, which deals with issues such as parents on drugs and having to live in a homeless shelter. “March: Book Three,” a firsthand account of the civil rights era by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, was also a hit, and the kids got to watch the film “The Children’s March” (about how the young people of Birmingham were able to participate) in conjunction, which Dixon said resonated deeply with them.

Kumani Hare, a rising fifth grader, said her favorite was “When Grandmama Sings” because it showed how “even though there was segregation back then, when you sing, black and white become one.”

Rising sixth grader Dion Porter said her favorite was “Mr. Lincoln’s Way,” by Patricia Polacco, “because it teaches me to be honest.”

“It’s a literacy program, not a camp,” Dixon said, “and the goal is that they don’t lose any learning over the summer.”

Indeed, by the time scholars gathered for their final Harambee on the last day of Freedom School 2017, he was able to rest assured: at least these students would be going back to school ready to succeed and make a difference.

“It went very well,” agreed site coordinator Hicks, who just completed his first year as site coordinator after having been a student leader intern, or SLI, for Freedom School for the last several years.

“I saw it as my responsibility to coach—the scholars were the ‘ball,’ so I had to coach my players, the ‘SLIs,’ all to help scholars realize they can make a difference,” Hicks said.

Organizers are working on plans now for the 2018 Freedom School. 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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