About 50 Waco Independent School District sixth- and seventh-graders are getting a chance to reduce summer learning loss with the help of Baylor University and a nationally recognized reading program.

Two weeks ago, Baylor’s School of Education started Waco’s first Freedom School endorsed by the Children’s Defense Fund. Held at Cesar Chavez Middle School through July 28, the program has deep ties to the 1960s civil rights movement and allows children to tackle controversial — though culturally relevant — topics through debate and book discussions.

The Children’s Defense Fund is a nationwide nonprofit group focused on leveling access to learning for all children, according to the organization’s website.

“When we think about how we capture the historical (element), CDF endorses books they read every single week,” Freedom School executive director Lakia Scott said. “Right now, they’re reading a book about Joseph. I haven’t read ‘Joseph,’ but the first two pages talks about how Joseph is a young boy trying to survive, right? His mom is addicted to drugs, and it’s this whole notion of how to empower Joseph, how to find ways to support him so he can continue on.”

Though the content is mature in nature, Scott termed the topics “relatable” because students in Waco’s Freedom School often either know someone who has been through a similar struggle or have experienced the struggle themselves. Summer learning loss is an epidemic and books like “Joseph” keep students engrossed and connected to issues around them, said Scott, a Baylor assistant professor specializing in urban education and literacy.

Closing reading gaps

Though the program has only been going on a short time, site coordinator Branda Greening has already seen reading achievement gaps close for some students. She’ll be teaching seventh-grade writing at Cesar Chavez this coming school year and said she’s using the program to help build relationships with children who might be in her class this August.

“These kids, you give them a front and back of a piece of paper and they don’t want to read it because we teach them for a long time that reading is this really difficult thing. They get these texts they don’t understand and can’t relate to,” Greening said. “ To say that all of our students here experience this kind of stuff isn’t true, but I would say any type of family — middle-class, upper-class or lower-income — has dealt with family drama.

“Especially in 2017, we’ve seen that the world isn’t perfect. I think reading about some of these things, they can really relate to it and comprehend it. They feel more confident as they read, and I guess they start to see reading can actually be enjoyable.”

Freedom Schools were established in the 1960s in Mississippi, when voter registration laws were biased and minority communities saw a need to mobilize, Scott said. The schools quickly became a way for black and white students to participate in various activities that ensured basic citizenship rights for all, the CDF website states.

Community involvement

The movement went on to motivate young people to be involved in their communities, including historical figures like Fannie Lou Hamer, a black civil rights activist born into a family of poor sharecroppers who later went on to become the Democratic National Committee representative; and Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and first black woman to pass the Mississippi bar exam.

“She brought back the Freedom Schools in the 1990s because the same types of things happening in schools then are happening now,” Scott said. “Overcrowding, misappropriation of funds, not enough to feed students. There’s still poverty . . . That’s one of the reasons why Freedom Schools continue to exist.”

The goal is to eventually increase the number of students every summer, and possibly open additional sites, Scott said. Right now, the middle school is accommodating 50 students, but the dream would be to accommodate every Waco ISD student, with the understanding that summer learning loss occurs across all grades, socioeconomic statuses and genders, she said.

“We decided Chavez would be the best fit for the inaugural Freedom School because Chavez has a heavy concentration of students who are coming from low and impoverished socioeconomic backgrounds,” Scott said.

Because the school offered a free meal program for children during the summer and because of the student demographics feeding into the school, the Freedom School offered a chance to bridge both gaps, Scott said.

“It’s been fun. We’ve been learning new stuff, like reading different kinds of books and doing fun activities,” sixth-grader Julian Santacruz said. “Freedom School is fun, but you’ve got to do a lot of stuff to make you better and smarter to get to the next grade. I want other people to come so they know how I felt in Freedom School. I didn’t really like to read before until I read these good books.”

STEAM, swimming lessons

Outside of spending the mornings going through the reading curriculum provided by the Children’s Defense Fund, students will also spend the summer working on interactive science, technology, engineering, arts and math projects in the afternoons. They’ll also take swimming lessons Mondays and Wednesdays, and field trips to local staples like the Mayborn Museum and Waco Mammoth National Monument on Fridays, with a basketball camp somewhere in between.

‘Let’s pull together’

They also start each day by performing Harambee song and dance sessions, which Scott said is essential to waking students up, getting energized and ready to learn. Harambee means “let’s pull together,” she said. In July, Waco’s Freedom School will invite other Freedom School students from Houston to do the biggest Harambee session in the state, but officials are still working out the details, Scott said.

“Freedom Schools served as a way to teach people who maybe were not literate how to read, so they could become registered voters,” Scott said. “But the other piece about Freedom Schools historically was this power of knowing that ultimately youth shaped our future. This idea is that if we really empowered our youth — even if they’re 10 or 12, to help them understand civil rights, help them to understand the power in knowing how to read — then we can change our future.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as the 2010 TCCJA Journalist of the Year.