Organizing Busta Week: Teaching Academics the Love of Reading

By Busta Brown

For The Chronicle

If you’re looking for something fun and exciting for youngsters this summer, Freedom School is exactly that. When children tap into their imaginations, they open up a whole new world, where all their hopes and dreams come true. Freedom School is a six-week literacy program that offers a research-based, multicultural model that fosters a love of reading in K-12 students.

“What we do stems from the civil rights movement, from the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964. When they were fighting for black voter registration rights. Students from across the country have come to Mississippi to provide Freedom Schools for students in an effort to keep black youth safe and provide them with rich educational experiences not available to them in public schools,” said Winston-Salem senior coordinator Rashawn Meekins. Freedom Schools and Project Director of Kimberley Park Elementary Freedom School.

Rashawn added that the program also exposed black and brown children to different subjects and literature that they would otherwise not be exposed to during this time. Freedom School is not your traditional school. All of the literature read by scholars during the summer program is about people who look like them.

“The literature also deals with the situations that black and brown children may experience in their community. We have books that can talk about overcoming homelessness and other topics they face on a daily basis,” Meekins said.

The program aligns with Common Core standards, as well as social and emotional strategies. What I love most about the Freedom School summer program is that the academics don’t “sit and get”. They use their imagination, which allows them to take control and be creative.

Students also discover the power of communication. Rashawn said: “They have conversations about situations that they wouldn’t normally get to have in a normal classroom. It allows them to be more open and express themselves on what matters to them, and everything is encouraged around a book.

Another good thing about the Freedom School summer program is that if your child is not at the reading level, that’s okay. “In our classrooms, we read in groups. When you enter our classrooms, the scholars are seated in a circle. This promotes a sense of community in the space. Researchers don’t sit at desks and chairs until it’s time for them to collaborate in cooperative group activities where they produce projects and different products that help them work together with activities conflict resolution.

Lesson plans are written and focused on the theme “I can make a difference”.

“Each week there is a different theme. The first week is, I can make a difference in myself. Week 2, I can make a difference in my family. Week 3, I can make a difference in my community. Week 4, I can make a difference in my country. Week 5, I can make a difference in my world. And week 6, I can make a difference with hope, education and action,” Rashawn said.

The program has a research-based curriculum created by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Students also receive a before and after assessment. “During the first five days, scholars are assessed using the baseline reading inventory and then they complete a post-assessment at the end. These results are forwarded to CDF for analysis and they provide us with the results and academic performance data with respect to summer learning loss and/or gain during those six weeks,” she said. These data include results from surveys administered to parents, scholars, and servant leader trainees about their experience with the Freedom School program.

When I visited the Freedom School, I noticed how fun and creative the students were while doing their classes. Some took a scene from one of their books and acted it out or recreated it. Others would take part of a poem from one of the books and make up a rap. Then a rap battle would jump up. It’s amazing how much fun they have with reading.

Freedom School programs begin each morning with breakfast and then escalate into a morning celebration called “Harambee”, which is a Kiswahili word meaning “let’s pull ourselves together”. During this time, scholars and interns listen to various guests who read aloud and participate in various cheers and chants to prepare scholars for their day of learning. After Harambee, scholars then engage in a two-and-a-half-hour integrated reading program, “which is the meat and potatoes of the Freedom School curriculum,” Rashawn Meekins explained.

At the Kimberly Park Elementary location during the afternoon, Rashawn invites people from the Winston-Salem community to come and share their talents and expertise in areas such as bucket drumming, activities STEAM, theatre, Lego robotics and dance. Activities may differ at each site. “At the end of the six weeks, each site will have its final. This is when scholars can showcase all the things they learned during Freedom School,” Meekins said.

Carrie Woods is the Executive Director of TURN (Through Unity Reformation is N-evitable) Freedom School. She shared how she got involved in the Freedom School program. “I heard about it in 2020 from Dr. Amber Baker, former principal of Kimberley Park Elementary. I was so excited about it because it was a smooth transition from what TURN was already doing.

TURN is a grassroots nonprofit organization that provides tutoring and enrichment services to youth “on occasion” during the school year and to Freedom School during the summer. This year, TURN became its own sponsor for the Freedom School program. Carrie would like to thank one of their main backers, Woody Clinard, who has been very supportive over the years. He really believes in freedom schools.

“I also want to thank the United Way of Forsyth County Place Matters initiative for partnering since 2015.”

How are the students selected? “It’s different per site. On school sites, scholarship recipients are selected on a first-come, first-served basis. When we get that many enrollments, we open the door to other scholars in that school’s community,” Rashawn said.

The Carrie Woods site is open to all students in Winston-Salem County/Forsyth County schools. “At the TURN site, we also accept students from charter schools, and students also come from out of state every year. They start calling at the beginning of the year. Not all schools have a CDF Freedom School program, so the good thing about community organizations, scholars are accepted from WSFCS, charter schools, or home schooling.

Rashawn said some scholars join the program hating to read, “but at the end of the six weeks you can’t get them to drop books.” Some of the younger scholars ask their parents to read the books they receive from the Freedom School. Meekins shared that when students leave the program, the love and passion they develop for reading makes staff and parents proud.

“At the end of the day, when parents pick up students, if they come early, you’ll often see them crying, ‘My mom picked me up too soon,'” Carrie Woods shared with great pride and great nice smile.

The different CDF Freedom School sites are: TURN Freedom School, Lit City Freedom School, Ashley Academy Freedom School, Old Town Community CDF Freedom School, Forest Park Elementary Freedom School, Konnoak Community Freedom School, Wake Forest Freedom School, Kimberley Park Elementary Freedom School and Sunnyside Freedom School. CDF Freedom School programs began June 20 and run through August 4, according to the Freedom School’s particular website. Program hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for community sites and Monday through Thursday for school sites.

For more information, visit the CDF Freedom Schools national website at: https://www.childrensdefense.org/programs/cdf-freedom-schools/.

Virginia S. Braud