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.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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