Response: February 2015 Issue

Freedom Schools Reach Out and Up

Freedom Schools Reach Out and Up
Dorian Townsend, center, of the Freedom School at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville congratulates scholars.

Damani Covington, 14, wants to be an attorney, because "poor people don't get good lawyers when they are in trouble," she said. "If I'm a good lawyer, I can help make sure that everyone gets fair treatment."

Not the kind of lighthearted conversation you expect from a teenager during summer vacation. But Damani is anything but typical, and she spent her summer honing her reading skills and her commitment to improving her community as a scholar at the six-week summer Freedom School at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Washington, D.C.-based Children's Defense Fund (CDF) launched the summer Freedom Schools in the mid-1990s in cooperation with local sponsors to promote improved reading and comprehension skills among public schoolchildren. The books and class discussions also encourage the scholars to make a positive difference in themselves and their communities.

The program pays homage to the original Freedom Schools created and operated by racially integrated groups of college students to empower African Americans with academic and civic education during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Damani was one of 44 students in grades 4-8 who were part of the 2014 inaugural Freedom School at Gordon Memorial Church. Members of the historically black congregation decided to open a Freedom School after four young African American men were killed in street violence within 18 months.

"We are a people who believe that service to God through service to this community must be a primary response to our corporate and personal piety," said the Rev. Vance Ross, Gordon Memorial's senior pastor. "God is calling the church to interrupt and disrupt any system that marginalizes and writes off young people, particularly young black men."

Children take a stand

After Damani's class read a novel about a boy whose father was in prison, it led to a discussion during which her teacher, Lee Phillips, a Vanderbilt Divinity School student, talked about the disproportionate number of young, poor, black men who face tougher sentences and disparate treatment in the criminal justice system. Damani researched how capital punishment is meted out and drafted a petition.

Saving children from the streets and helping them get a fair, healthy and just start in life is what prompted the Gordon Memorial congregation to sponsor one of the first Freedom Schools in Nashville. The church is located in one of the poorest ZIP codes in the city, where many families receive public assistance and where schools have the lowest test scores in the city.

Children's Defense Fund research has shown that children who participate in Freedom School for two summers or more actually improve their reading scores at least one letter grade.

Freedom Schools also offer college students experience in tackling the complex issues of poverty and illiteracy. Teachers, called "servant-leader interns," are under-30 undergraduate and graduate students trained by the Children's Defense Fund. Tatyana Haddock, a 2014 intern and member of Gordon Memorial and a sophomore at Xavier University in New Orleans, called the experience "eye opening."

"When I learned that there is a direct relationship between low reading scores and which people end up in prison, I wanted to get involved," said Ms. Haddock, a first-time servant-leader intern who punctuated her class lessons by playing classic jazz and engaging scholars in recycling. "When we talked about black history and culture, you could just see the students lighting up. Once you have pride in yourself, you want to do better and make your community better."

Freedom Schools currently operate in 96 cities across the United States. Last summer, nearly 12,000 children-most from low-income families and even incarcerated teens in juvenile justice system-gathered in churches, community centers, mess halls and schools to read and engage black, Latino and women's history and contemporary fiction. Scholars were also encouraged to talk about social and moral issues and how they might change the world for the better.

United Methodists from several U.S. annual conferences are deeply involved in Freedom Schools-none more so, perhaps, than in the West Ohio Conference, where 14 of the 27 Freedom Schools operating in the region are run by congregations and United Methodist-related organizations. Not only have the schools helped children improve academically and socially, Freedom Schools have also reinvigorated congregations that were losing spirit and vision.

Church and community

Summit-on-16th United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, which has sponsored a Freedom School since 2011, is a place where connecting with community youth has restored the congregation's sense of purpose for serving God and neighbor.

In 2009 the congregation had dwindled to a worship attendance of 55 people, most of them white middle-income suburbanites who drove into the city for worship, recalls the Rev. April Blaine, pastor of the church. Determined to reconnect with its neighborhood, church members agreed to open a Freedom School and raised enough money to recruit and host 85 children in the summer of 2011.

Buoyed by the program's success, the church expanded its Freedom School from summers to a year-round afterschool program. In 2014 Summit's Freedom School welcomed 123 scholars in grades K-12, thanks to partnerships with a nearby public school, another United Methodist church and Ohio State University.

"Freedom School has placed the congregation in the midst of the community in ways that have allowed significant relationships to form," Mr. Blaine said. Worship attendance now averages 100 people and is diverse as it includes more people from the neighborhood.


M. Garlinda Burton is a deaconess and director of the Freedom School at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. She served as chief executive of the United Methodist General Commission on the Status and Role of Women from 2003 to 2012.

Posted or updated: 2/6/2015 11:00:00 PM
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