Preventing the summer gap: Freedom Schools is in session

July 2, 2012, 11:53 a.m.

Every morning at Freedom Schools begins with "Harambee," an assembly full of chants, cheers, reflection and motivational talks. (José Martinez/OnCentral)

It seems like there's a cheer for everything when you're a part of Community Coalition's Freedom Schools summer literacy program.

"G-O-O-D, M-O-R-N-I-N-G, good morning! Good morning!"

Also: "Freedom Schools – in the house!"

(There's even one for morning announcements, which mainly involves spelling out the word "announcements." There's also a remixed version of that cheer, which involves spelling it to a different rhythm.)

And it goes on. The list of cheers is a large one, as is the group of students sitting in the lunch area at Foshay Learning Center. There are 100 of them, all from South L.A.-area schools, and they're waiting for the first day of the program to kick off.

Freedom Schools is part of a national program by the Children's Defense Fund that aims to boost literacy skills, knowledge of civil rights history and self-esteem. It's modeled after the Freedom Rides that took place during the Civil Rights movement, where college students went into the South and did a massive voter education program, in addition to a program that attempted to bridge the achievement gap in segregated schools. Community Coalition, a nonprofit that works to transform destructive social and economic conditions in South L.A., secured grant funding from the Children's Defense Fund for the second consecutive year to bring a Freedom Schools program to the southside.

The six-week program will run five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Participants, who run the gamut from third to 12th grade, will receive breakfast, lunch and a snack. The program is completely free of charge.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson is the president and CEO of the Community Coalition. "Given the gaps in our education system and what scientists have come to discover as the summer gap, where our students fall behind because our families can't afford to send kids to summer camp – and that summer school has been dismantled almost completely and all the activities that are traditionally available for them aren't there – we're proud to be able to have Freedom Schools," he said. "Reading enrichment and raising kids up in the struggle for social and economic justice."

"This program is filling a gap for families whose children were going to have a huge loss of learning over the summer because their parents cannot afford to pay for private summer camps," said Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, Community Coalition's vice president of organizational growth. "We are not placing any financial burden on families because we want to facilitate participation and experience for the children. We don't have to have any barriers to students learning in the summer."

Part of the gap Montes-Rodriguez is talking about is the 95 percent-reduction L.A. schools have seen in summer school funding. Five years ago, reports the Coalition, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was spending $40 million on summer school. Today, the district is spending about $1 million.

"We know there's a huge loss of educational knowledge during the summer," said Montes-Rodriguez. "For us, it's really important that students have the opportunity to get ahead."

She said that students take a pretest when they come to Freedom Schools, so teachers can gauge where they are – not for placement. By summer's end, the hope is that students are further advanced or "even ahead of their grade level." But it's not a remedial school – rather, it's an enrichment program.

Every day at Freedom Schools begins with an assembly called "Harambee," which is Swahili for "we all come together." A member of the community will read aloud to the students, followed by some cheers and chants ("BOOM! Dynamit! Freedom Schools is dynamite!") There are recognitions – also called affirmations – and a moment of silence. And there's a motivational song. It's a way to begin the day with a clean slate.

"Regardless of what may have happened to a child when they woke up at home or the day before in their home or neighborhood, they get a fresh start every morning and they get to begin with affirmations," said Montes-Rodriguez.

Harambee is just the beginning – in the morning, participants will take part in an "integrated learning curriculum," where they'll read literature written mostly by people of color and do exercises based on that reading. The afternoon is for physical and wellness activities – soccer, yoga, karate, healthy eating. They'll also learn community organizing and leadership skills, and will use some of that knowledge to take on projects that will beautify South L.A. communities.

Friday is for field trips: to the Expo Center, amusement parks, the beach.

"They'll go to field trips that will connect them to cultural aspects of the community and introduce them to new areas they that they might not have known," said Montes-Rodriguez. She added that students will get a tour that highlights social and economic conditions on the westside and the southside, so they can compare. Then "they can begin to create proposals for how their communities should improve," she said.

"We still have some of the lowest-performing schools in the district and in California," said Montes-Rodriguez. "So for us, having a program that reinforces education but also pushes the students to think further, to think how their education connects to their family, their neighborhood, their community, is critical to creating students that see their education as part of the community's success." She's hoping that will motivate families to kick up the pressure on LAUSD to better the quality of their kids' education.

Taness Walker and Mackenzie Birch, incoming 10th- and 4th-graders, respectively, are both participants in the program – and both are excited, although for very different reasons.

"I feel like it's a great opportunity to learn more about colleges," said Walker, whose dream school is CSU Northridge. "It's a way to have an opportunity to see other places and not just stay in South L.A. and the South L.A. schools and deal with what we're going through."

Birch, who attended last year's Freedom Schools session, said she "it was amazing" and she "loved it."

"I couldn't stop talking about it, even in school," she said. "I was like, 'I cannot wait until I go to summer school.' I kept telling my parents that I wanted to come back." Birch loved meeting the staff and new friends, and says last year "was very upbeat and very energetic."

Sitting through Monday morning's Harambee makes it clear this year will be that way, too. Freedom Schools staffer Jessie Fernandez says that's the way it has to be.

"You've just got to pull it together – if you're not excited the kids aren't going to be excited, so I think in the end the energy really makes the program something special," he said. Fernandez is a senior at San Francisco State University, and drove all Sunday night to be at Foshay in time for the program's kick-off, so he's got about an hour of sleep under his belt. As a Fremont High School student a few years ago, he was deeply involved with the Community Coalition, particularly in campaigns for educational equity, and says that's part of why he comes back.

"It's a really powerful experience, working with youth," said Fernandez, who's one of several staffers who has come back from college to help out with the program. "Educational equity and community organizing are still really near and dear to my heart. I'm excited to come back and work with the Community Coalition and give back to the organization that's given me so much, and give youth a different experience than I had growing up."

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