Inside the inspiring world of Freedom Schools

This summer, the Greater Austin Reading Coalition,a coalition convened by United Way for Greater Austin, collaborated with CDF Freedom Schools® Austin to offer impactful tutoring to 33 young scholars enrolled in their summer camp program. We recently had the opportunity to interview Director of Parent Engagement, Simone Barnes, who shared details about the enriching partnership and the culturally responsive, year-round support network provided by the organization.

Can you please provide an overview of what Freedom Schools are and their core mission or purpose?

Freedom Schools is a part of a national program. An intense and beautiful six week summer program, however we aim to build a sense of community year round. 

The core mission of Freedom Schools: 

It started in 1964 in Mississippi when African Americans were discouraged from voting, and there was no equal education available across the country. In 1964, white and Black college students from the north came down to Mississippi to help educate African Americans to vote due to the literacy tests. There was a freedom schools movement in the US. The movement shifted toward today, which focuses on curriculum for students during the summer to continue education. This is especially important to combat summer learning loss. Part of the Freedom School way is cultural and literacy. It is fun. It is not like day-to-day school. They learn that reading is about creativity and sharing a voice, not just passing a test. We also highlight the idea that reading allows you to change your community and better the world! The stories and books they read have characters that look like them and that they can relate with.

Freedom School is not a camp it’s a movement. 

SLIs (Servant leader interns) are college students who are engaged in their communities. They help with K-2 or 3-5 classes. SLIs and Scholars (campers) are an excellent example of an intergenerational model. Freedom School is really about positive impact and mentorship. They learn from each other. They take the lessons to heart, and there is no embarrassment or shame in freedom schools. They know mistakes are okay, and that others will cheer and support them. During the school year, we do pop-up events with scholars and authors. They help and check in with each other. We start every day in the summer with harambee- cheers and chants, like a pep rally. We have recognition for our scholars. We start off by highlighting good moments, and then they go to their integrated reading curriculum classes. Freedom School is an overall way of life. 

Freedom School is also training future leaders and child advocates, many SLIs are on the path to be educators.

Could you explain the role that the Greater Austin Reading Coalition (GARC) plays in collaborating with Freedom Schools?

Freedom Schools was one of the first organizations to become a partner and member of GARC.   

The partnership has been beneficial, especially with smaller nonprofits and even teaching, because it can be an isolating field. It has been so nice to meet other partners and share resources and ideas for ways to support each other. It has provided newfound relationships with libraries, families, and different organizations. We love to see who else is in this movement—we have had some of our partnerships organically grown out of these relationships with organizations in the coalition. The neutral sharing of resources, such as families with resources who have read our newsletter and gotten ideas.

Our program supports 50 scholars. Half of our scholars come from Norman Sims Elementary schools, and we also want to make an impact on the larger communities they are a part of. GARC has helped provide resources. For example, we had a book shopping day where students could pick out a book they wanted to read. It was supported by Book Springs, pure volunteerism, and GARC, which was just amazing. It was a community coalition movement. 

In addition, just getting out of our nose to the grindstone attitude and being able to stop, look around, and spend some time with our sibling organizations where you see that you are not the only one and can share and collaborate is worth it. Even if that is the only thing going on and it is not. 

When we come together as a community to serve the whole community, it is so meaningful. It is wonderful to know that we have that layer of advocacy, and group impact and interest are just excellent and appreciated from the grassroots level. We have also received funding from United Way, and GARC has been such a fantastic source of help.

Could you share some historical background about the Freedom Schools’ summer program?

How we started ten years ago: the welcome story grew out of the St. James Episcopal church in 1961 as a congregation for African Americans in East Austin who were not finding accommodations in other Episcopal churches. 

They focus on hospitality and family-oriented support. When the welcome table was formed, I quickly heard about the National Children’s Defense Fund program’s work with educational disparities, and knew that it was a match. It took a few years of work, and we opened in 2014. The program has a deep, robust, long story, and celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Where is Freedom Schools located? Can you describe the setting or environment?

It is hosted at different AISD schools in our neighborhood. Norman Sims is our current home and where we have sunk our roots in a standard way. Because of the inspirational parts of Freedom School, we find it meaningful to be in an elementary school. If it is not the scholars home elementary school, they still understand. The same area brings familiarity and association with creativity and education. 

Harambee is Swahili, and it means “all pull together.” It is all about the layers of support, community, excitement, direction, and guidance toward success. This means that the scholars are in the middle and then middle and high school students in the next layer, and then college students and parents and faculty in the outer layer. 

We have our theme song, something inside so substantial that we sing every day. We are igniting that internal flame of each scholar. Everyone feels something. 

It has been excellent to see the scholars at Norman Springs regularly. It reinforces familiarity with the students, the parents, and the teachers and it shows support year-round. It strengthens that family environment. We like to think that we are extended cousins. Even if scholars attend a different school. A lot of our families have been displaced in recent years and something is affirming about coming together in one central place.

How many students typically attend the Freedom Schools’ summer camp, and what grade levels do they represent?

Scholars have to be rising first graders and rising 6th graders. 50 scholars total. We have a 10 to 1 ratio of ten scholars and one SLI, with a multi-age classroom setting. Level 1: K-2nd, and Level 2: 3rd-5th grades.

There is no specific ratio. We try our best to accommodate scholars with siblings. The ratios always stay within the class size. We want to ensure that we have space to have all the siblings in the program.

In your opinion, what sets the Freedom Schools’ summer program apart from others?

Harambee is an exceptional experience. It sets the tone for the day as both scholars and adults are energized. It sets the stage for excellence and participation expectations. It is very positive. Our day starts with breakfast, lunch, and a snack. It helps get everyone ready to go. We are doing things, and by the time they go to class, they are ready. 

Our read-aloud guests excite everyone. It’s the best way to start your day.

Our curated book list is a massive thing because when you see the library of books, it feels different. There is something to be said when you see yourself in a story, or you are interested in science. Any well-curated library does something special and is robust to students.

The extended family atmosphere is vast. Our scholars don’t feel like a statistic or number. They come in happy to see each other; they come in feeling like family and asking how everyone’s day is going. 

I am so surprised about the intergenerational dynamic, but the scholars engage with older students, form relationships, and have conversations. No one feels bored or just present; they feel excitement and care about each other.

For those interested in supporting or getting involved with Freedom Schools, what are some avenues or opportunities available to them?

To become a Scholar: Scholars can get enrolled in waves. A scholar who attended Freedom Schools in the past receives priority enrollment. The next wave is if they are a scholar at our host school, we reach out to the principal and parent support specialist asking if there is a scholar who you would recommend and benefit from attending Freedom Schools.

In the next wave, we open it up to the community that lives in the Norman Sims 78721 area code, Pecan Springs, or St James episcopal church.

We have a waitlist where we open it up to the community at large, where we do get scholars around central Texas. 

To become an SLI: The applications come out in the new year and they have an interview once they have been hired. There are two training programs, nationally and locally. We are a part of this movement; you can connect with other SLIs and see that.

Other opportunities for involvement:  We have readers read each morning. We also have “Drop everything and read time” every day, where everyone reads and volunteers help scholars. Additionally, volunteers help sort books for 15 minutes, be buddies with a scholar, and help set up/prep classrooms

Trunk or treat events. Reading Buddies is a cousin organization of Norman Sims.

Could you share any data or statistics that demonstrate the impact and success of the Freedom Schools’ programs?

We do pre and post assessment and get anecdotal data.

  • 95% summer program completion rates
  • 88% or higher daily attendance rates
  • More than 95% of parents reported positive changes in their children’s social and academic confidence.
  • More than 95% of parents expressed willingness to participate in social action and assist with their children’s school work.

Additional Notes

CDF Freedom Schools® Austin is a year-round culturally responsive family support network that culminates in a free six-week literacy and STEAM education summer program for scholars ages 6-11. The program provides enrichment through a research-based and multicultural program model that supports K-5 scholars and their families through five essential components: high quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

Children’s Defense Fund Mission: The mission of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. The CDF Freedom Schools® program provides summer and out-of-school time enrichment through a research-based and multicultural program model that supports K-12 scholars and their families through five essential components: high quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

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