YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- For six weeks, the students at the Children's Defense Fund Summer Freedom School began each day with motivational cheers and chants.
On July 24, their final day, they put on one last show. In front of their families, the 50 students clapped, cheered and stomped through the routines they had memorized. The finale, singing “Something Inside So Strong” by Labi Siffre, defined what got the school started. Siffre first sang his song in 1987.
The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become.
The farther you take my rights away the faster I will run. You can deny me. You can decide to turn your face away.
No matter, 'cause there's something inside so strong.
Twenty-three years before, during the summer of 1964, often called Freedom Summer, college students went into predominantly black neighborhoods in the South where they set up Freedom Schools to improve literacy and teach black history.
Civil Rights activist Marian Wright Edelman helped establish the Summer Freedom School in 1995 to keep kids learning throughout the summer. In addition to literacy, history and the arts, the schools taught them about their heritage and the tactics the Civil Rights movement employed to achieve racial equality.
All students who participated in the Freedom School at Tabernacle Baptist Church attend Youngstown city schools.
“The more they read, the more they're able to get information and process that information. That's the whole idea: to create lifelong learners and scholars,” the Rev. Christopher McKee Jr. said. “These young people also had an opportunity to learn about the Civil Rights movement, but they also did voter registration and a neighborhood cleanup."
McKee, pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, helped to organize the program. This summer was the first time a Freedom School was held in the Mahoning Valley.
“Anything we can do as a community to make our young people have a safe place in the summer to continue their learning, that’s what we're all supposed to do. And we should all work together,” said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-33 Boardman. This is a good example of that.”
In the closing ceremony attended by Schiavoni and other local leaders, students related how they had great experiences.
“I learned about my history and the history of African-Americans and how they fought for us to be here today,” said Zion Jones, age 12. “It taught about my culture and how I'm able to be where I am today.”
She says her favorite activity was the daily chants because they were “a hyperactive part of the day.”
Dariyus Jones, 8, said he learned important lessons:
“Don't let anybody else tell you what to do. Be yourself. Then, you can know more about your own self and that's how you become a real man.”
McKee saw the students approach the Freedom School differently than they do their regular schools. “Our teachers aren't teachers,” he said. “They are facilitators. They're creating classrooms that are fun and interactive that in some ways disrupt the traditional learning model of sitting at a desk.”
Given the success of this summer's program, McKee and Schiavoni agree the future looks bright for more Summer Freedom Schools in the Mahoning Valley.
“The more people that see the impact that this has on kids, the more people will be willing to donate time and money to make this grow. Hopefully next year they can [enroll] 100. Maybe down the road, they get 200,” Schiavoni said. “You do this until every single kid [enrolls] that wants to be involved.”
Also at the ceremony was Youngstown Mayor John McNally, who helped hand out backpacks filled with school supplies provided by the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence. Schiavoni had presents of his own as he congratulated every student and handed them certificates from the state of Ohio for completing the program.
Pictured: State Sen. Joe Schiavoni and Rev. Christopher McKee Jr. speak to students during Thursday's closing ceremony.
Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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