Freedom School: A lesson in putting faith into action

Community guest reader J. David Gibbs reads to the students at Freedom School. The six-week reading program is sponsored by Connexion in Somerville, MA. Story and photos by Beth DiCocco, Director of Communications.

July 31, 2015

If you have some trouble starting your day with energy, you may take a lesson from the kids at Freedom School in Somerville, MA.
They start each day of this six-week summer reading program with Harambee, and it looks like this:

“Harambee” is Kiswahili for “Let’s Pull Together.”  In Freedom School, Harambee is a time to celebrate and affirm the students, kindergarten through fifth grade, who participate in the program sponsored by Connexion.

When Rev. Justin Hildebrandt came to Connexion (formerly College Avenue United Methodist Church), the church had just sold its building.

“My directive was to figure out what’s next for our Methodist witness in the city of Somerville,” he said. “We explored a number of different opportunities, and I really felt we needed to something that would lead with our witness. … I wanted us to be known in the city for actually putting our faith into action.”
Hildebrandt learned about Freedom School from United Methodist churches in Ohio who were doing the program.
Rev. Justin Hildebrandt
Freedom School is a nationwide program of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), and is now in 107 cities across the country. The first CDF Freedom Schools opened in 1995.

The Freedom Schools grew from the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the Freedom Summer Project of 1964. The project was designed to engage students and volunteers in activities to ensure basic citizenship rights, primarily the right to vote, for all Mississippians. The project included reading instruction and sought to enhance the education offered to black students in that state’s public schools.

Connexion’s Freedom School has two locations: the Somerville Head Start building and the church, with 25 to 30 children at each site. This Freedom School has been operating for four years; this is the first year with two sites.

The focus is on literacy, and the CDF has developed an intensive Integrated Reading Curriculum on which the kids spend about three hours of their day. Harambee, though, is more than just a wake-up exercise, Hildebrandt said.

“The singing and dancing are a really key part of the program because part of it is learning in community … building relationships among children that schools don’t always have time to do during the school year; we have the time and ability to do that,” he said.

Harambee also includes a story read by a community guest. Somerville’s mayor has read here, and on this day the guest reader is J. David Gibbs,
Click the images to see a larger version
executive director of Community Action Agency of Somerville, which operates the Head Start program.

The book is “The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman.” As the wooden man makes a journey across the U.S., the children are attentive and full of questions and comments.

When Woodman hits the Arizona desert, one boy remarks that the heat won’t affect him because he’s made of wood. After a pause, he postulates: “He could catch on fire.”

During the story Gibbs asks if the children have visited any of the states mentioned in the book. While many have lived in California, for example, the children also mention their global roots in El Salvador, Nepal and Haiti.

A 2014 article on the School Library Journal’s website said that a review of 1,183 children’s books about people published in 2013 found that 89.5 percent were about white people.

As a multi-cultural site, Hildebrandt said, it’s important for the books they use to represent a variety of cultures. The CDF curriculum includes an “amazing array of books” with “characters that look like them, have backgrounds like them, and authors who have backgrounds like them,” he said.

But those books and the program as a whole are expensive; the operating budget here is $100,000 – with $27,000 spent on books and training for the Servant Leader Interns who staff the program.

As part of a long-running pilot program, the CDF measures the impact the Connexion program is having on the children’s reading by testing them at the start and end of the six weeks.

The students at Freedom School have a wide range of reading skills. All students can lose reading skills over the summer break, Hildebrandt said, but children who can’t afford summer camp or other programs are particularly vulnerable.

“… Even at a non-academic camp you’re engaged, in a word-literate environment. Kids that are staying at home watching TV, they go down,” he said, and those loses can have a cumulative effect.

“The city does a great job with kids below grade level – I really want to have a summer experience to help them get back on track, but my heart is also with the kid that’s above grade level that could stay there, but may not.”

Hildebrandt said when Connexion started Freedom School the church was seeking something “really tangible that people would know us for.”

“And in this context, that looks like something secular, but something where it’s clear that I’m the pastor and it’s the church that’s running this,” he said.

“I’ve got all these people that will never come to church, and are clear about that, but love what our church does and talk about it,” he said. “It’s a hard model, right, but I think it’s the model that’s going to work in our urban areas.”