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After years of absence, Champaign Freedom School returns

After nearly a decade, Freedom School is returning to the Champaign-Urbana area.

Freedom School is a summertime and after-school literacy and cultural enrichment program for K-5 students, that kicked off on Monday, June 7th at Garden Hills Academy. This summer, classes are being hosted in-person for the next six weeks, but they have ZOOM capabilities as well.

But it’s so much more than just your average summer school. It’s part of a historical effort to promote educational equality.

The concept of Freedom Schools dates back to the Civil War era, with the intent to counter the “sharecropper education” that Black and poor white children received. The modern version of Freedom Schools took hold during the Civil Rights movement. Now, there are 200 Freedom Schools nationwide, and they have educated over 150,000 students since 1995.

Featuring a progressive, anti-racism curriculum, the six-week program is heavily focused on reading comprehension and is designed to help disenfranchised children to become well-informed in their own right. The reading list features 20 age-appropriate books written by activists, scholars, and award-winning authors

During the course, students will be expected to be reading as many as 3-5 books a week. The books are free and the students are welcome to keep them after they conclude the alternative schooling class.

Topics such as music education and influence, understanding colonialism and colonialist terms, and voting rights will be covered in the classroom. Hands-on activities such as creating a podcast and a YouTube channel will be taught as well. The kids will be taught these creative, technological tools to utilize them as forms of self-expression, as well as tools for resistance and how to improve community.

“I really want to emphasize the reading program,” said Dr. Jon Hale, University of Illinois educational history professor and author. “It’s not a summer camp. It focuses on comprehension and literacy. It is all about helping students meet their potential, and working with communities to empower them to help make change.”

All of the time in the classroom is meant to help the students develop their analytical thinking and critical thinking skills, and get them thinking about how to address problems in our community. Another added benefit is to help instill a deeper understanding of their diverse, history-rich backgrounds and establish self-love and confidence in the students.

Those involved with the program said that many of their students had trouble adjusting to online learning, and they hope that this experience helps them prepare for the transition back to school.

While classes will wrap up Friday, July 16th, the students will have one last responsibility and they will go into the community for a local day of action the following Monday, on the 21st.

The program is organized by the Children’s Defense Fund, a national child advocacy non-profit organization. Their mission, featured on their website, focuses on, “fostering environments that support children and young adults to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves and in their families, schools, communities, country, and world with hope, education and action.”

Also responsible for the re-launch of the program is the Champaign Unit 4 school district, community partners, and advocates within the University of Illinois.

Interest in the program was immediate. Those involved in the development of the Champaign Freedom School said that people expressed how much they’ve missed the once-popular program and felt like there was a hole in the community in the time it’s been gone. Forty-five total applications were received, however there was a 15-student limit, due to budget constrictions.

“Registration is first come first serve,” said Hale. ‘We’re focusing on getting students from the northern end of Champaign, living in marginalized areas. While everyone is welcome, we are trying to target and serve Black and Latino families.”

Hale himself has been involved in the creation of four different freedom schools nationwide, and he is passionate about bringing awareness to the cause. Personally, Hale sees the State of Illinois having the chance to set a national example, as Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Black Caucus-backed education plan back in March.  He hopes Illinois will host the first state-funded Freedom Schools network in the nation.

You can learn more, support, and donate toward the freedom schools program here.

Top photo from Flickr.

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