One-hundred young students in Tallahassee and neighboring Gadsden County will have a unique learning experience this summer. They will be part of an educational tradition that dates back to the height of the nation’s struggle for civil rights.
The genesis of that “Freedom Schools” program came at a time when the fight for equality was scaling new heights in America.
“(It was during the) 1964, Mississippi Freedom Summer,” said Dr. Kristal Clemons. She used to supervise the social studies teachers trained at Florida A&M University. She’s now on the education faculty of Florida State University and a co-executive director of this summer’s North Florida Freedom Schools.
“You had mostly white interns from the north caravanning down, first to Miami University of Ohio in Oxford, Ohio for civil rights and resistance training. And then to various counties in Mississippi,” she explained.
“Traditional Freedom Schools did not look like what we see today. They were in run-down taverns, the back of churches, backyards of various community members’ homes. And what they did was they supplemented what students did not receive in their traditional academic curriculum.”
Those days of segregated education and institutionalized discrimination may be receding. But Clemons said the need for Freedom Schools’ educational programs goes on, particularly for children in low-income, marginalized environments. She teamed up with a Leon County special education middle school teacher Keely Smith who was already running the Hope Freedom School in nearby Gadsden County. Smith in turn was working with Florida State Education Researcher Alysia Roehrig. Clemons says the three educators decided to expand the program under the auspices of the Capital City’s two universities and open a second Freedom School at Florida A&M’s Developmental Research School…commonly called “DRS”.
“Given FAMU’s location and the population it serves, we thought what better place than to do this at FAMU DRS,” she said.
The summer program will instruct 50 kindergarten through 8th grade students each at the Gadsden County and Tallahassee locations. Clemons said each of the participating universities will bring unique learning to the experience.
“They have some great programs at FAMU. They have the Institute for Research and Music Industry Studies, which we’re partnering with, and they’re going to teach our kids music production, and hip hop pedagogy, hip hop arts, and then on the FSU faculty side, we’ve got sports management faculty who are teaching health and wellness (and) healthy living.”
FSU Education Researcher Alysia Roehrig said there will be some more regular kinds of academic skills being taught as well.
“Where students work with pre-service teachers to talk through math problems. We’re going to have a project looking at writing and revision. You can write something short, might be what’s hot now is ‘flash fiction’ they write real short stories and then they’ll have a chance to sort of manipulate that and create art of their story and then go back and revise their story," she said.
As good as all this might sound, the ultimate question is, does it help the kids? Roehrig insisted the empirical results look good.
“A lot of research has been done on different Freedom Schools, some actually experimental. Last summer, we just had the pre-post data for the evaluations and the majority of the children did retain their reading level or exceed their initial reading level.”
Roehrig thinks this whole idea has real possibilities for statewide application. Particularly if other public universities take the lead in their communities.
“I think this model working with the universities is really helpful because then we can bring in the knowledge of what’s evidence-based, but also do research to see how we can improve what’s going on and also help working to train teachers to work with diverse students.”
North Florida’s two Freedom Schools will be in session from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. June 13th through July 22nd.