Amid severe budget cuts in Los Angeles, Freedom School stands strong
Diego Montes-Rodriguez, 8, and Omar Baltazar, 9, met last year at Freedom School.
The self-conscious high schoolers smiled shyly as their group discussion leader Jozik Benitez began beat-boxing energetically. They were rehearsing a rap they would perform in a few minutes in front of their peers to make an obscure Latina leader more relevant. They weren’t expecting this much energy from Benitez, but then again, they’d never been to a Freedom School.
The high-energy summer school program by South Los Angeles-based Community Coalition focuses on developing leadership and self-esteem of the 100 Latino and African American youth participating. It drills literacy and civil rights history as part of a national program by the Children’s Defense Fund.
“We want them to reach a level of consciousness to see deficiencies in their community and be able to point them out,” said Benitez, 21, about the 6-week program that just started.
Students from grades 3 to 12 start the morning with an assembly called “Harambee,” which in Swahili means “we all come together.” Together they sing and chant self-affirming messages as they get in the zone for the day ahead.
They break off in groups, read age-appropriate material and integrate what they are learning with activities. And the students rave about it.
“A lot of people say learning is fun, but this really is learning and is fun,” said middle school student Terrell Webb, 12.
He explained that he had made five new friends while acting out a chapter of a book he had read with peers.
In its second year, the program has expanded from 60 students to include high school students. For this week’s theme (“I can make a difference in myself”) students are reading an autobiography of world-renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who -– like many of the students –- grew up in a single-parent, low-income home and overcame poor literacy skills.
Staff noted how important it was for students to be engaged and affirmed with Latino and African American leaders and role models.
Unlike in other curricula, “They’re engaged in the readings and asking questions,” said Program Director Aaron Burleson, pleased with their progress in just the first week.
In one small group, students related harrowing experiences of drugs in the family, raising themselves or being held at gunpoint.
Jozik Benitez (left) leads Freedom Schools students in a discussion and helps them brainstorm creative ways to present what they have learned.
Those who participated last year were eager to come back. There was no shyness as they chanted, “Rock the Freedom School!” The energy was contagious.
It seems Freedom Schools couldn’t have come at a better time for Los Angeles where nearly three in four students are Latino.
Due to continuing budget cuts, Los Angeles Unified School District has cut the length of the school year and slashed summer programs by about 95 percent. From $40 million spent on summer school five years ago, Community Coalition reports that the district only spends $1 million today.
Students said that without this program, they’d be bored at home with nothing to do.
National studies have shown that due to the lack of summer academic programs, low-income students are 3 ½ grade levels behind their more advantaged peers by the time they enter the 9th grade. According to a recent RAND study, summer learning loss is cumulative, and over time contributes to the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent students.
The Community Coalition Freedom Schools program is free to parents and provides two meals a day and fieldtrips every Friday.
It is funded in part by Katie McGrath and JJ Abrams family and LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office.
And thanks to continued financial support, Omar Baltazar, 9, can continue to attend “the best school in the whole world.” Baltazar met his friend Diego Montes-Rodriguez, 8, last summer at Freedom School. “I learned about segregation — it’s really bad. People should be treated with equal rights,” he said.
(Photos: Albert Sabaté)