This is the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program’s 20th anniversary.
More than 135,000 children across the country have had an enriching CDF Freedom Schools summer or after-school experience. More than 15,000 college students and recent graduates have been trained to teach the integrated reading curriculum whose books reflect the lives of the K-12 children and youths, and give them hope.
The program is a servant leadership incubator sowing seeds for two generations – the children served and the “servant leaders” who teach and serve them.
The college students most often come from the communities they serve and are role models for the children. It is hard to be or dream of what you can be if you don’t see it.
La’Mont Geddis was a member of the first class of servant leaders in 1995. Maya Angelou spoke to that small but eager group as they finished their training and participated in the first Freedom Schools graduation.
La’Mont was already studying education at Howard University when he got involved with Freedom Schools, but says much of what he knows about how to care for and reach children and be a rainbow in their clouds comes from the Freedom Schools.
“My long list of what I learned through Freedom Schools began with understanding poverty. I thought, initially, that poverty only had something to do with money or the lack of. I found out there is an emotional poverty, a love poverty, mental poverty, social poverty, and that’s what is comprised in our inner-city schools, impoverished children. These children are victims of poverty, and sometimes hurt people. So how do you help them and not exclude them? You know how? I learned it in Freedom School. You give them a voice. That’s what Freedom Schools help us to understand.”
Today, La’Mont is the principal of Malcolm X Elementary School located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and is one of the founders of the Omega Freedom School.
Barbara Cornejo, an immigrant from Chile, left college the semester before she became a Freedom Schools servant leader because of financial problems. However, the experience of teaching so many children about the importance of education helped inspire her to find a way to finish her own and become a public school teacher serving at-risk children.
Barbara eventually enrolled in a master’s program in education, administration, and policy and is now about to pursue a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. She says, “Freedom Schools taught me to believe that there was something inside of me so strong. I knew I could make a difference in myself, in my familia, in my community, my countries, my world, with hope, education, and action.”
Brandi Brown, the executive director of the longest-standing Freedom School in Texas, says she learned as a young Freedom Schools teacher that the Freedom Schools mantra of believing in children so they can believe in themselves isn’t just empty words – setting high expectations for children does work.
The parent education component that is a key part of all Freedom Schools also helped her in an unexpected way when she and her husband became guardians of her husband’s 7-year-old nephew.
She told the more than 2,000 servant leaders this year that just as they should encourage their students to do their very best, they should remember to always do and give their own best, too.
Freedom Schools are training a new generation of public school teachers who love, respect, and set high expectations for all of the children in their care.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).