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Credit: Susan Frey/EdSource Today

Terrick Gutierrez, in the red shirt, takes part in "Harambee," which means "let's pull together" in Swahili, at the Freedom Schools summer camp in South Los Angeles.

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!”

Students clap and chant to start their day at the summer program.

Credit: Susan Frey/EdSource Today

Students clap and chant to start their day at the summer program.

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.

Building literacy
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, center, listens in on a lunchroom discussion.

Susan Frey/EdSource Today

Edgar Flores, 13, center, listens in on a lunchtime discussion.

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.

Tanness Walker, 17, questions a defense witness in a mock trial.

Tanness Walker, 17, questions a defense witness in a mock trial.

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.”

Jathan Melendez, 15, is a junior servant leader intern at the summer program.

Credit: Susan Frey/EdSource Today

Jathan Melendez, 15, is a junior servant leader intern at the summer program.

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.

Alfred Burks III is the site coordinator for the summer camp.

Credit: Susan Frey/EdSource Today

Alfred Burks III is the site coordinator for the summer camp.

“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.”

 


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  1. Floyd Thursby 1941 2 years ago2 years ago

    It looks nice, all the kids jumping up and down, happy, but it's too late at that age. No one will remember in 5 years if this worked. I'd ask Gary and Caroline, who are cheering this and saying how wonderful it is, to check in 10 years and see if these kids' test scores and income is equal to the average income of an Asian child who grew up in poverty. … Read More

    It looks nice, all the kids jumping up and down, happy, but it’s too late at that age. No one will remember in 5 years if this worked. I’d ask Gary and Caroline, who are cheering this and saying how wonderful it is, to check in 10 years and see if these kids’ test scores and income is equal to the average income of an Asian child who grew up in poverty. It’s hours, not dancing, that make kids successful, long hours of the hard grind. This is just something to make us all smile while the achievement gap marches on unabated. Please don’t assume it works, check on it in a few years.

  2. Susan Frey 2 years ago2 years ago

    The Freedom Schools pay for the site like any other organization would. They followed the same protocol and procedures through LAUSD to procure the space, with no special privileges, according to James Rogers, director of the project. Rogers said that what looks like "astronomical" gains actually indicate how far behind students are when entering the program. Many students, he said, had never read a complete book before the program. At Freedom Schools, they read and … Read More

    The Freedom Schools pay for the site like any other organization would. They followed the same protocol and procedures through LAUSD to procure the space, with no special privileges, according to James Rogers, director of the project. Rogers said that what looks like “astronomical” gains actually indicate how far behind students are when entering the program. Many students, he said, had never read a complete book before the program. At Freedom Schools, they read and discuss a book each week and keep the book for their personal libraries.

    Replies

    • Gary Ravani 2 years ago2 years ago

      All excellent points, Susan.

    • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

      OK, there's something seriously awry here. Kids who have never read a complete book and are still learning how to read - decoding, word recognition, etc. - are not too focused on content, depending on actual reading level and age level - the younger the more true. The notion portrayed here is that students who didn't learn to read can magically read to learn and that the more relevant content has … Read More

      OK, there’s something seriously awry here. Kids who have never read a complete book and are still learning how to read – decoding, word recognition, etc. – are not too focused on content, depending on actual reading level and age level – the younger the more true. The notion portrayed here is that students who didn’t learn to read can magically read to learn and that the more relevant content has made the difference, even though students can’t understand what they are reading if its too advanced. It is well understood that deficient readers do not do well in classes of average to advanced readers as they are always in struggle mode. So has all the reading material at Community Coalition been down graded to the actual reading level? I’m just trying to understand what is going on here.

      So Community Coalition is saying that these kids were very very far behind and is not surprised by the big jump of 9 months, (which is a little more than 1 grade level). The problem is that a group of underperforming kids spanning from 3rd to12 grade who are that far behind have major reading needs and probably many have reading disabilities. Why aren’t we hearing what it is they are doing to address those needs so successfully or does it matter? Or is this article like one of those feel good songs of summer?

      I hear SFUSD talk about the success of its Superintendent Zones and it’s all absorbed as if it were fact. Why is that?Because no one says differently. The problem is that when you look closely at the individual school achievement records, the image of success is revealed as a just that – an image. And who creates the image? The district with the help of a gullible or lazy media. I don’t see the difference between these two stories.

      We should be asking questions, not just accepting whatever we read. Otherwise, what is the point of learning how to read? If you write a story about the underprivileged you are not expected to criticize it.

      • navigio 2 years ago2 years ago

        You've been arguing that success is all about incentive and desire since you got here yet all of a sudden those things cannot help to explain this kind of success? IMHO, the evolution of reading ability is very non-linear. Students are 'poised' for significant leaps in ability at a choice few points on that timeline. Normally these come early on but if for some reason that is not achieved I think it can come even … Read More

        You’ve been arguing that success is all about incentive and desire since you got here yet all of a sudden those things cannot help to explain this kind of success?
        IMHO, the evolution of reading ability is very non-linear. Students are ‘poised’ for significant leaps in ability at a choice few points on that timeline. Normally these come early on but if for some reason that is not achieved I think it can come even faster at some later point under the right circumstances. This is probably especially true for kids who have been using social english at a level that is far past their reading ability. I expect many of the older kids are past decoding and probably even word recognition, but even if not remember you may be talking about making a years progress from a point that is many (many) years behind grade level. Although I am not a big fan of the ‘months of learning’ metric, I find it much easier to see something significant happening in an environment focused almost exclusive on that goal and on kids with those specific needs. But that’s me.

        • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

          At this juncture I feel I'm belaboring the point. Let me end by putting it this way: This is an article about a summer reading program that has reported VERY significant results where so many others have failed with far greater resources. Is it too much to ask that we get a little information about what kinds of methodologies are practiced specific to reading proficiency before we are expected to accept the unverifiable results at … Read More

          At this juncture I feel I’m belaboring the point. Let me end by putting it this way: This is an article about a summer reading program that has reported VERY significant results where so many others have failed with far greater resources. Is it too much to ask that we get a little information about what kinds of methodologies are practiced specific to reading proficiency before we are expected to accept the unverifiable results at face value? Am I expected to believe that it’s “Drop Everything And Read” or that the advancement is little more than the benefit derived from a good book? I don’t doubt the value of enthusiasm from reading appropriate content and more of it, but if the students are as far behind as they claim, I would expect something in the way of intervention that’s a little more focused. In response to my inquiry, the program clarified the rental issue. Doesn’t anyone want a little clarification about Community Coalition’s wildly successful approach to reading, an area of tremendous importance and great controversy due to the large numbers of failing students? After all, this seems to be the proverbial magic bullet.

          • Floyd Thursby 1941 2 years ago2 years ago

            Navigio, you consistently ignore the fact that Asians with immigrant parents outperform white kids on the English scores on the STAR tests. They hear virtually no words, yet score higher. It's about loving to read, but you learn to love something by doing it for many hours while you hate it, until you love it. The Kumbaya approach of make every kid happy and he'll turn out OK is failing, clearly, with … Read More

            Navigio, you consistently ignore the fact that Asians with immigrant parents outperform white kids on the English scores on the STAR tests. They hear virtually no words, yet score higher. It’s about loving to read, but you learn to love something by doing it for many hours while you hate it, until you love it. The Kumbaya approach of make every kid happy and he’ll turn out OK is failing, clearly, with white kids barely a quarter as likely as Asian kids to make it to a UC, under a third. 33.5% vs. 8.7%. Most kids don’t love to read unless they do it a lot. Things become interesting with hard work. 16% of white kids show up to kindergarten already having been taught how to read, vs. 60% of Asian kids. Kids who are reading to start Kindergarten do far better than kids who don’t throughout their educations. Parents need to turn off the TV and be their kids’ parents, have them study in the Summer to avoid summer learning loss, have them read many books, and sit next to them and learn. One on one learning can’t be replaced, flashcards, etc. However, we can’t afford one on one time for kids from the government, so if parents neglect this responsibility to goof off or a dad leaves or they work too many jobs, the kids suffer. This is why they should add to the school district and give kids in grades K-3 3 hours a week of one-on-one tutor time, non-unionized to guarantee they’re good, effective tutors will be promoted, but ineffective ones fired. This is the only thing that will solve it unless parents change. These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

  3. Don 2 years ago2 years ago

    Doreen, maybe you are willing to accept whatever Community Coalition wants you to believe, but that doesn't mean I have to. Whenever charter schools post good results, the anti-charter crowd picks apart the results and that's the way it should be. We should scrutinize the data and make sure that it is not just used as a PR stunt to promote a school or program.That the school is helping students to achieve and be … Read More

    Doreen, maybe you are willing to accept whatever Community Coalition wants you to believe, but that doesn’t mean I have to. Whenever charter schools post good results, the anti-charter crowd picks apart the results and that’s the way it should be. We should scrutinize the data and make sure that it is not just used as a PR stunt to promote a school or program.That the school is helping students to achieve and be engaged is great. However, the results reported here as facts are not believable. It would be hard under the best circumstances to get those kind of results. Why should I accept at face value results which I know are extremely unlikely? It is extraordinarily unlikely that students could improve their reading skills that much in such short order. LindaMood Bell should be squirming about now if it’s true. But, hey, if people want to pretend they are doing what no one else can, why should I rain on their fake parade?

    Maybe if we knew more than – “Besides offering curricula that are relevant to students, the teachers encourage hands-on activities in classes…” there might be some sense to be made of the assertions. But much of the rest of the article is about the history of Freedom Schools and some examples of very politicized non-reading activities.

    There’s also the question of whether a political organization manage summer schools programs that are at least in part potentially publicly funded.

  4. Doreen ODonovan 2 years ago2 years ago

    I would suggest readers of this article look for what they can learn from this model and replicate at their schools rather than look for reasons to discredit the assertions made. There are 35 research papers in ERIC (http://eric.ed.gov/?q=%22Freedom+Schools%22&ff1=subFreedom+Schools) discussing the freedom School Model, which has been around for decades. While there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer to whether Freedom Schools are the best way to provide reading summer interventions, there are certainly … Read More

    I would suggest readers of this article look for what they can learn from this model and replicate at their schools rather than look for reasons to discredit the assertions made. There are 35 research papers in ERIC (http://eric.ed.gov/?q=%22Freedom+Schools%22&ff1=subFreedom+Schools) discussing the freedom School Model, which has been around for decades. While there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to whether Freedom Schools are the best way to provide reading summer interventions, there are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories that indicate students are benefiting.

    Follow the link to the Stanford Study in the article and you will see a good summation of the best qualities of Year Round Learning programs, including Freedom Schools. We all need to be looking for ways to improve how we reach our students. Clearly the current model isn’t working for everyone.

  5. Gary Ravani 2 years ago2 years ago

    The reading assessment used by this program, Basic Reading Inventory, would be considered an "informal assessment," considered most useful to administer quickly to a large group of students. The breaking down of reading ability in increments of "months" of growth is likely a stretch. This is why when a student is being evaluated for special education placement the psychologist or specialist will typically use a variety of instruments to compare and synthesize results to … Read More

    The reading assessment used by this program, Basic Reading Inventory, would be considered an “informal assessment,” considered most useful to administer quickly to a large group of students. The breaking down of reading ability in increments of “months” of growth is likely a stretch. This is why when a student is being evaluated for special education placement the psychologist or specialist will typically use a variety of instruments to compare and synthesize results to get some measure of student’s abilities or potential problem areas.

    I would not be surprised to see these students improve their reading comprehension. Both the reading aspects of the program, DEAR, and the activities around the books being read (e.g., the trial simulation) would increase students’ background knowledge, give them greater context, and improve their ability to make meaning of the text.

    The best reading program, to develop improved reading comprehension (the reason we read) is to give kids something they can read and want to read and then let them read a lot of it. This is the reason our badly neglected school libraries (at least in some communities) are a major stumbling block to improving student reading. Also note, there weren’t a lot of skill drills and worksheets discussed in this article.

  6. Don 2 years ago2 years ago

    To be fair, it would be difficult for Ms. Frey to verify the reading proficiency results. If SBAC results were available for last school year and parents were willing, we could follow these students' growth results. Of course that is not possible. Instead, the info is presented as fact without verification. Therefore, it would be good to have a lot more information before expecting the readers to accept it on face value. While the … Read More

    To be fair, it would be difficult for Ms. Frey to verify the reading proficiency results. If SBAC results were available for last school year and parents were willing, we could follow these students’ growth results. Of course that is not possible. Instead, the info is presented as fact without verification. Therefore, it would be good to have a lot more information before expecting the readers to accept it on face value.

    While the funding is primarily private, the program takes place at a public school. Most private summer programs have to pay for space. Is The Community Coalition paying to rent the space? If not, this raises ethical issues as to why one program gets free space from the district while another has to go out in the marketplace and purchase it. What influence does this politically-minded organization, Community Coalition, wield over LAUSD? Were any deals made to get the space? Can other summer programs get equal consideration? And what is the cost to the district, if indeed it does offer it free or for a price?

  7. Don 2 years ago2 years ago

    Any quality summer school that helps kids is valuable even if this one seems a little too political. But it's mainly a privately funded, so I don't see that as a public issue. Unfortunately, I think the reported reading success stretches credulity. According to Ms. Frey's article, students on average are advancing nine months in reading proficiency with just 8 weeks of instruction. That's some spectacular record when it comes to … Read More

    Any quality summer school that helps kids is valuable even if this one seems a little too political. But it’s mainly a privately funded, so I don’t see that as a public issue. Unfortunately, I think the reported reading success stretches credulity. According to Ms. Frey’s article, students on average are advancing nine months in reading proficiency with just 8 weeks of instruction. That’s some spectacular record when it comes to remedial reading intervention. Strangely, the article focuses on the many non-reading activities and provides no information on what The Community Coalition is doing to achieve these unusually stellar results.

    As a former teacher and involved parent who has some experience with remedial reading programs I have to say I wish I did not find these reported results to be too good to be true.. If they are true every teacher in inner city schools across the nation should take notice. I’d want to know more about the instructional practices and programs employed to attain these results, which I assume has to be more than DEAR (Drop Everything And Read). Are these students taught by reading specialists? Which interventions are they using and for how many hours per day? It’s likely that many of these students with reading deficiencies have very specific individualized reading needs and require specific targeted instruction. The implication from the article is that more relevant and engaging content is driving the results. If that’s the case we can pretty much retire the specialists and reading programs and use the Community Coalition’s summer reading list.

    Replies

    • John H 2 years ago2 years ago

      Yes – no disrespect to Ms. Frey but this reads more like advertising copy than reportage. There would certainly seem to be items here worth applause, but a more considered appraisal would have been welcomed.

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