Freedom Summer School | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Freedom Summer School

The Freedom Summer died with the 1960s while poverty and illiteracy remained. Now the program has been retooled and resurrected.

As "sister Sierra" Davis reads to the young boys and girls in her classroom the kids shuffle in their seats. The book is about Bessie Coleman, the first black licensed aviator. When Sierra is finished reading a passage, hands fly in the air, but when 10-year-old December Dixon is chosen to read the hands land back in laps smoothly as the kids wait patiently for the next reading opportunity. There is no babysitting going on here in Freedom School; these third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are disciplined.

Some sit in the circle of chairs. A couple on the floor in the middle. They interrupt only to ask questions.

When hearing that Coleman walked four miles to school every day, 10-year-old Shaina Watson asks in all earnestness, "Why didn't she go to a closer school?"

Their classroom is divided into different sections. The "Creation Station" displays construction-paper art projects. In the "Peace Station," huge greeting cards hang from the wall. Although some of the kids have drawn Mercedes-Benz emblems as peace symbols, many of the cards bear the mantra whose message predates George W. Bush's by many years: "Freedom Schools want to leave no child behind and ensure that every child has a fair start, safe start, moral start, head start and healthy start."

The kids are so into the book that they forsake their designated "game time" to finish it. Davis passes out cheese crackers and apple juice while they wrap up.

"Children can't learn if they're hungry," says Davis, the kids' student leader. "We believe you can't service children if you don't address all their needs. Children don't come in parts, so you have to address them holistically."

Freedom School is a six-week summer program where black kids learn about the changes young soldiers of the Civil Rights era made in America, and how they can make a difference in the world today. The meat and potatoes of Freedom School are found not only in the Lincoln school cafeteria they'll visit at least twice a day but also in the crates of books they'll read throughout their summer semester.

They read, even while eating. People from the community are brought in to read to them. There are more than 50 kids in the Kingsley-Lincoln Freedom School and each will go home nourished in more ways than one.

If the name Freedom School sounds familiar, that's because it is the same concept practiced during the Freedom Summers of the '60s. In 1964, crops of college students -- many of them members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee -- led a crusade to the Jim Crow South to learn social protest and struggle while registering and educating blacks to vote.

After blacks' right to vote was fully realized and other civil rights legislation reinforced black citizenship, the Freedom Summer mission and its home in Freedom Schools eventually faded out. But while blacks made advances on paper, poor education and poverty continued to make it difficult to make it to the polls. If they couldn't read the names and bios of the candidates, or spell their own names, then how would they know how to vote in favor of their best interests?

In 1995, Marian Wright Edelman, working with the Black Community Crusade for Children -- a subset of the national Children's Defense Fund -- decided it was a social imperative to resurrect Freedom Schools to reinforce the importance of literacy. Schools were created in Ohio and Missouri, where the program's regional headquarters remain today, and have since multiplied to more than 60 schools nationwide. Reading, goes the theory, is just as empowering and essential today for blacks as was voting during Civil Rights times.

"We don't actually teach the mechanics of reading," says Davis. "But we're here to instill a passion for reading."

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