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.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.