More than 100 African-American and Latino students mill around a South Los Angeles high school gymnasium, talking and greeting each other on a summer morning. But at 8:30 a.m., they begin clapping and chanting, coalescing into a pulsating, high-energy force.
“G-o-o-d-m-o-r-n-i-n-g Good morning!” they shout. Clapping, then raising their fists, they are on the move, some circling the gym, some weaving in and out, all laughing. A group of older boys raise a younger boy up high. Clap. Clap. “P-o-w-e-r. We got the power! Good morning!”
Each day of this eight-week summer camp for 3rd- through 12th-grade students begins with group chanting called “Harambee” or “let’s pull together” in Swahili. The camp is part of Freedom Schools, a national summer program that helps low-income African-American and Latino students build their literacy skills, understand their history and become leaders in their schools and communities.
The Freedom Schools program at Middle College High School in South Los Angeles is one of 15 in California and 132 across the nation sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund. The fund started the Freedom Schools summer program in the 1990s.
The schools are modeled after summer programs for African-American students in Mississippi that were part of the Freedom Summer Project of 1964, a massive drive to register black voters that was part of the Civil Rights Movement. Besides offering “a richer educational experience” than what was available in public schools, the Freedom Schools’ teachers, mostly college-age youth, were “modeling for Mississippi children their responsibility to become a force for change in their state and nation,” the Children’s Defense Fund states on its website.
Students who participated in the program last summer showed, on average, a nine-month improvement in reading proficiency, said Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, vice president of organizational growth at the Community Coalition.
The Freedom Schools program in South Los Angeles is run by the Community Coalition, which organizes youth and their families in South Los Angeles to fight for more resources for the schools and neighborhood and for more control over their lives. Most recently, the coalition helped convince the school district to change disciplinary policies that resulted in expelling and suspending African-American and Latino students at higher rates than other students. The coalition also convinced the district to create a “student need index,” which funnels more state funds into the schools that need them most.
Like all Freedom Schools, the program in South Los Angeles focuses on improving the literacy of students by offering culturally relevant books about youth having similar experiences. This summer, it is piloting curricula for the national Freedom Schools program that are relevant to the Latino community, such as “Enrique’s Journey,” about a Honduran boy’s quest to find his mother who immigrated to the United States. Students also are reading “Shooter,” about a school shooting by a student who had been bullied.
Edgar Flores, 13, said he was not used to reading before coming to Freedom Schools, but now he looks forward to DEAR (drop everything and read) time. Recently he read “Bang!,” which is about a 13-year-old who struggles to get his life straight after his little brother is shot and killed.
“Things like that happen in my neighborhood,” Flores said. “In school, the books are not as interesting.”
The Freedom Schools program at the Middle College, which began as a pilot in the summer of 2010, has improved students’ reading ability, said Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, vice president of organizational growth at the Community Coalition. Based on the Basic Reading Inventory assessment given at the beginning and end of the summer camp, students who participated in the program last summer showed, on average, a nine-month improvement in reading proficiency, she said. Last year was the first summer the assessment was given.
Nationally, the Freedom Schools after-school and summer program was recognized in a 2011 report by the Harvard Family Research Project for having “demonstrated success in providing quality learning opportunities for youth.”
Besides offering curricula that are relevant to students, the teachers encourage hands-on activities in classes that are small – from 10 to 15 students. In one classroom, Tanness Walker, 17, is the prosecutor in the trial of a student accused of being part of the shooting incident detailed in “Shooter.” She jumps up frequently to object to the defense’s questioning of the witness, walking to and fro as she speaks, relaxed and confident before the classroom jury and the teacher judge.
Walker said the program is fun, but also “helps me stay focused on academics so I’m ready to learn when I go back to school in the fall.”
Focus on community organizing
The South Los Angeles school has a strong focus on community organizing, Montes-Rodriguez said. Taped to one classroom wall are the goals for that afternoon’s lesson: “Learn what a leader is” and “Learn about Social Justice leaders.” Students have an incentive to improve their reading skills so they can become leaders, she said.
Alfonso Aguilar, 17, a senior this fall at Fremont High School in South Los Angeles, has been a student leader in several Community Coalition campaigns.
“Before Freedom Schools, I never really spoke out,” Aguilar told a group of about 40 students during an organizing meeting at Fremont High School this spring. “I was very timid. Now that I’ve been to Freedom Schools, I’m actually comfortable talking to you guys and letting you know why I think what I’m doing is important and why I think this summer program will help you.”
The summer also offers an opportunity for “cross-training,” Montes-Rodriguez said, giving activist students from different schools a chance to meet.
“I think it’s beautiful that youth have the opportunity to be exposed to literature that reflects them,” said Armando Peña, a servant leader intern in the summer program. “It made me feel like I belonged, that I have a say, that I’m valued.”
Jathan Melendez, 15, said students discuss the differences between East Los Angeles and South Los Angeles.
“We don’t help each other out in my community,” said Melendez, who lives in South Los Angeles. “The way our history is explained here has helped me cope with that. Businesses left because of my people. I can make a change. I’ll have to work hard, but I can do it.”
Melendez is a junior servant leader intern who receives a stipend of $100 a week for helping the younger students and his peers. Montes-Rodriguez said the payment is a way to recognize students who have been volunteer leaders in their school all year, and it also takes the pressure off them to earn money during the summer for their families.
The South Los Angeles program is funded primarily by the Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, but also receives funds from the Seed Family Foundation and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Armando Peña, 19, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador during the civil war in the 1980s, said that when he was a high school student Freedom Schools “gave me an outlet – a space where I could express myself, be heard as an individual.” Peña, now a sophomore at Humboldt State, is working as a servant leader intern in the summer program.
“I think it’s beautiful that youth have the opportunity to be exposed to literature that reflects them,” he said. “It made me feel like I belonged, that I have a say, that I’m valued.”
The Freedom Schools program also encourages journal writing to help students make sense of their often chaotic and difficult lives. Students can share the stories in their journals, but they don’t have to.
“Lots of them ask me to read their stories,” said teacher Randolph Burelson, Jr., who is the first in his family to graduate from college. “The atrocities some of these children go through from their own family members, they have to let it out and be able to understand. It all starts with writing.”
The school takes students on Friday field trips familiar to many summer school students, such as to the beach or a science center. But during a college tour of the San Francisco Bay Area, Freedom Schools students had a little different experience: they met with David Hilliard, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, in Oakland.
Hilliard gave them a tour of where party members used to live and their old offices. He told them their slogans and introduced them to family members of people who had been in the party. But he also warned the students about substance abuse, explaining how some party members had turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the pressures of trying to change the country’s power structure, and how that ultimately led to their demise.
“All that history of what people of color have been through makes me want to keep the legacy going,” said Melendez, who is African-American and Latino. “There’s something great building up here. We’re being a big part of the solution for our community.”
Walker, who is African-American, said that knowing the history of the Black Power struggle is important “so we can move forward and not back. The violent way really didn’t work,” she said. “We have a more positive way, a more connected way. So we’ll see how it works.”
Alfred Burks III, the site coordinator for the summer program, said Freedom Schools politicizes students by helping them understand their history and deal with their anger about how people like them have been treated.
“It’s like the ‘Matrix’ science fiction movie,” he said. “The students have been believing one thing their entire lives and then they get information they have never heard before.” Burks said students have become angry and upset when they hear about the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young black girls and about the angry white mobs that attacked the “Freedom Riders,” racially mixed groups of people integrating interstate buses.
“There is a process they have to go through, including the anger piece, to feel that shift and change,” Burks said. “We’re helping to channel that energy into something productive.”