GREENSBORO — Seria Bullen Sata spent a week in training with other college students from around the country for moments like this.
The Bennett College junior with Freedom School emblazoned across her shirt is helping early this morning to lead a group of children in a large room at Providence Baptist Church who are finishing the lyrics to the inspirational song “Something Inside So Strong” that speaks of confidence in the face of challenges:
“You can deny me, you can decide
“To turn your face away
“No matter ’cause there’s
“Something inside so strong”
And then they’re shouting at the top of their lungs a loud rap about that confidence:
“You can’t mess with it!
“You can’t mess with it!”
That same energy will follow them into the classrooms of Freedom School, a literacy program where for six weeks this summer Sata and others will work with students in hopes of instilling a love of reading, which impacts success in later classes, from biology to math.
The teachers — college students who are called servant leader interns — use inspirational prose in their classrooms. An “Affirmation Station” in one classroom is a mirror framed with words including “smart,” “confident,” and “calm.”
“This is the best place,” Xavier McIver will later say when he is back in his classroom with a book in his hand.
In the 1960s, Marian Wright Edelman, an icon in education and with the Children’s Defense Fund, came up with the idea of the Freedom School, which is rooted in the civil rights movement and college students wanting to make a difference. Data show most children —called scholars in the program — experience significant gains in reading achievement and don’t experience any summer learning loss.
A very structured national model, the program ranges from culturally diverse characters in books to field trips designed to expose students to places they might not otherwise go.
Sata is also using the time to stoke the curiosity of the ones who come leaping into her classroom at the beginning of the day, and the others who need a few chants and cheers to get started.
Guilford County Schools and the Black Child Development Institute have held Freedom Schools over the years. And the program is being used in communities around the country.
“We can already see we are making a difference,” Danielle Leathers, the site coordinator at Providence and a Guilford County Schools teacher, said at the end of the first week.
Unlike traditional summer school classes, which focus on remediation, the program is designed to boost self-esteem and encourage lifelong learning. It has been shown to help students avoid losing ground academically during the summer. The first schools were designed to educate African Americans in the South during the 1960s civil rights movement. They focus not only on academic enrichment but also other areas including parent and family involvement and intergenerational leadership development.
Field trips help to expand students’ experiences and build on their knowledge and excitement.
The school system separately provides breakfast through its summer nutrition program. The church provides hot lunches, including spaghetti. The Rev. Darryl Aaron said the church congregation, long known for its emphasis on education, including decades of free SAT prep classes, got behind the plan and the budget.
Gwen Willis, former chief student services officer for Guilford County Schools, and Edith Martin, a former system principal, led the effort at Providence, which is their church. When First Baptist Church found out about the program, the congregation there wanted to support the effort with a check.
Students in the program come from nearby Bluford/Peeler Elementary School. Teachers and staff there thought they could thrive in such a program.
Every morning starts with “harambee,” with the children and staff coming together for the morning’s motivation which involves the chanting and cheering and songs.
It’s here where staff says the learning actually starts.
“It’s empowering,” Leathers said.
Even the most mundane moment, such as sitting down, becomes the chant: “Take a seat, take a load off your feet; sit on down, sit on down.”
And then a special guest — this week Marcus Gause, the principal at Andrews High School in High Point — reads to the group. The week before it was former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye.
Gause is soon holding up “Boy of Color,” a Sherrie Nelson book on differences that he first began reading at bedtime to his son, who’s now 11, before he could read on his own.
The students, about 30 of them, are at rapt attention.
“Good job! Good job!” they chant when he’s done.
Gause also brought members of the school’s basketball teams. And each pulls out a favorite book.
Soon, the students break up into three classrooms.
It is clear something systemic is afoot here.
Each of the students, for example, gets to borrow from the school’s library. But each week they each get to take a book home — to keep.
“Each child is developing their own library at home,” Aaron, the pastor, said of potentially reaching the whole family. “We are investing in peoples’ lives."