East Cleveland’s Freedom School is Alive and Well

If the term “Freedom School” conjures images of the 1960s in your mind, you are not wrong. The concept originated during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, a tumultuous time when civil rights activists struggled to integrate the schools of Mississippi. But that image in your head is probably incomplete:

The Freedom School is alive and well and living in East Cleveland each summer.

For Jerome West, executive director of the East Cleveland Neighborhood Center, and Jake Streeter, a Freedom School trainer, engaging students is a critical component to the program.  As West says, with its focus on literacy and social action, the Freedom School makes “learning exciting and inspires students to love reading.”

Streeter explains that keeping the students inspired and engaged is not a task that they take lightly.  A committee carefully reviews the literature choices in advance to make sure that “students can see themselves” and that the texts contain relevant  topics for the students to discuss.The works of Ohio’s own Sharon Draper, as well as those of Sharon G. Flake, are popular choices. 

The goal, Streeter notes, is to promote “a love of reading” among the students. To that end, they create a culture in which everyone reads together, including the staff. 

The program’s effectiveness is demonstrated by pre- and post-assessments, which reveal that their scholars, who pay nothing for the experience and who can range in ages from 1st grade to 12th grade, are definitely benefiting. They not only avoid summer learning loss but make impressive gains in their reading scores.

The Freedom School’s program, run under the auspices of the National Children’s Defense Fund, also honors the legacy of the original schools by promoting social action. Each summer, the Defense Fund selects a relevant topic. Most recently, that topic was voter registration. 

The Freedom School scholars organized a voting drive that involved making fliers and phone calls. Impressively, they also followed up with their contacts afterwards to make sure they had met their commitments to register and vote.

This combined push for literacy and social action creates the kind of inclusive culture that The Freedom School needs to thrive. The staff sets the tone early by setting up classrooms in a circle and making sure that everyone is physically on the same level.  For instance, you will not find a teacher standing while the students are sitting.  Parents are also asked to do their part by participating in at least six events during the 6-week program.

 It’s also essential to the success of the program that everyone’s voice is heard. Rather than starting the program with rules, they develop a Cooperation Contract. The scholars are thus engaged  in their own education. West reports that they “forget that they’re learning.” Clearly, the program is a hit with scholars and their families: up to 50% of participants enroll for multiple years. This, Streeter says, makes the program “more of a family.”

West stresses that The Freedom School program is “imperative” in East Cleveland. He reminds us  that it is the poorest city in Ohio and has the lowest-ranked schools. He also reminds us, though, that while they face immense challenges, the community is both “prideful and resilient.” 

Its children, he asserts, need to learn from exposure to places and events “outside the walls” of their regular experiences. Thus, for example, the young scholars are given the opportunity to visit the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, a field trip they take regularly.

The Freedom School, Streeter points out, cannot succeed without “buy-in from community partners.” Based on the number of families who are invested in the program, they have clearly earned that commitment. He adds that the scholars take the Freedom School culture back to their homes and their schools, where classroom teachers often want to know how these essential intangible qualities in the children were discovered and fostered.

Streeter’s own life embodies the principles of the Freedom School. He once cut down trees for a living but has now been involved with Freedom School programs for over ten years. Streeter notes that while some of the staff come to the program with a background in education, others like him turned to education because of the Freedom School culture. He is proof, as West reports, that the Freedom School culture is “contagious.”.

Like many organizations, they are monitoring current events, specifically the COVID-19 pandemic, to determine the nature of their programming for the summer of 2021. At this time, they are planning to run the program. 

In the past, they’ve limited participants to East Cleveland but have recently started opening it to scholars in surrounding communities. 
They are good, Streeter says, at “stretching the dollar, but it would be nice not to have to stretch it so much.” If you are interested in making a contribution, volunteering, or learning more, please contact Mr. West (jwest@ecnc.org or 216-932-3626).

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