Summer learning

Some 50 years later, Freedom Schools cultivate literacy and cultural roots

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Freedom School teacher Lozie Guy (right) walks his class through an exercise where they build their own family trees during the summer learning program at Frayser Achievement Elementary School in Memphis.

On a summer morning at Frayser Achievement Elementary School in Memphis, five students sat in a tight circle and retraced their family roots. Earlier in the week, the children had read “This is the Rope,” a book about a rope that travels from generation to generation and symbolizes a family’s connection. Now they were doing it themselves.

Such activities are 11-year-old Mykenzee Jones’ favorite part of Freedom School, a five-week summer program designed to improve students’ reading skills while also helping them appreciate their cultural roots and community history.

“Freedom Schools taught me when I learn, I can have fun with it,” Mykenzee said while drawing her own family tree. “It made me a better reader because I can understand things. When I read, if I have a problem with a word and I don’t know it, I can always ask.”

A project of the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, Freedom Schools are modeled after the original Freedom Schools of 1964, when college students from across the nation invested a summer in Mississippi to teach black adults and children how to read and to help black adults register to vote. Now, more than 5o years later, literacy remains a primary focus of the program, which was resurrected in 1995 and is offered free to participants, most of whom come from low-income families.

Freedom Schools operate in 107 cities and 28 states. Tennessee has five programs in Memphis and Nashville.

All schools follow the same basic structure. The day starts with “Harambee,” where students and instructors sing and dance in the Swahili tradition of “pulling together.” That’s followed with reading activities, games or field trips to places such as public libraries or the Memphis Zoo.

The integrated reading curriculum is the backbone of the program and is taught by mostly college students, known as “servant leaders.” It includes thousands of books that teach the children “to love to read” while also learning about their culture and history, said Kim Robinson, the program manager of the Southern regional office in Jackson, Miss.

Curriculum and staff training are provided by the Children’s Defense Fund, leaving each site to secure its own operational funding. Each school typically serves between 50 and 100 children. A school serving 100 children generally costs $109,000 to operate, including instructional materials, meals, travel and staff salaries.

In Memphis, the state’s Achievement School District sponsors three Freedom Schools at Frayser Elementary, Georgian Hills Elementary and Westside Middle schools — each with roughly 75 students.

While they receive training, instructors have autonomy to get creative with their lessons and in decorating their classrooms with a summer theme. At Frayser Elementary, for instance, one classroom is superhero-themed, and students can wear a cape when they lead discussions.

Mykenzee’s classroom is led by Lozie Guy, a fifth-grade teacher who describes Freedom School as completely different than his work throughout the school year at Frayser Elementary. Freedom’s student-to-teacher ratio, generally 10-to-1, lets him get to know his students better and identify comprehension problems quicker.

Rising sixth-grader Mykenzeé Jones thinks about her family's ancestry during a family tree exercise at a Freedom School in Frayser.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rising sixth-grader Mykenzee Jones thinks about her family’s ancestry during a family tree exercise at a Freedom School in Frayser.

“They’re developing a love, you can tell it’s something that hasn’t been developed before,” Guy said. “I like the beauty of it because it allows me as a teacher or an adult to model reading and show it’s not about completion; it’s about understanding and enjoyment.”

Summer reading instruction is crucial for students in this community. At Westside Middle, only 11 percent of students were proficient in reading during the 2013-14 school year. At Georgian Hills and Frayser Elementary, almost 14 and 11 percent, respectively, were proficient. All three schools are part of the state district that takes over failing schools with the ultimate goal of boosting them to the top 25 percent in academic performance.

Nataki Gregory, the state district’s chief academic officer, said Freedom Schools help prevent summer learning loss experienced by many students, especially from low-income families, when they’re out of the classroom for months at a time. “These schools are a critical part of how we make sure students continue to grow in their reading ability,” she said.

Another curriculum component emphasizes cultural history. Students read books about the civil rights movement and regularly discuss social justice with their instructors.

“There’s so much history in Memphis that — opening up the door — they can relate to the music and a lot of things that went on in the civil rights movement,” said Pamela Egwuekwe, a site coordinator at Frayser Elementary. “Those things took place right here in your city, in your own backyard. And they’re still taking place.”

Ultimately, Freedom Schools are designed to equip a new generation of young people to be productive and give back to their own communities.

“It is my hope that (the program) would give them some kind of investment and want to do good — to know that once upon a time, not even 50 years ago, I couldn’t get this same quality of education from anywhere around here — not being black at least,” said Aaron Youngblood, Frayser project director.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede