Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver received a roaring welcome Wednesday morning from the students of the local Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School sponsored by Baylor University.

“I know there is something I’m supposed to say this morning, but I can’t remember what it is,” Deaver said jokingly. “Good morning!”

“G-O-O-D-M-O-R-N-I-N-G, good morning, good morning,” cheered 50 children between coordinated claps and stomps.

The mayor was invited as the morning’s guest speaker. He read the children’s book “Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation,” by author Duncan Tonatiuh, to the students gathered at Indian Spring Middle School.

Deaver said the visit to Freedom School was unlike other reading engagements he has had.

Baylor’s Freedom School is a local branch of a nationwide initiative of the Children’s Defense Fund to limit summer learning loss and increase literacy and confidence in children who may otherwise struggle, according to the organization’s website. Freedom School also seeks to educate students on civic engagement. This summer, the students are learning about voter registration.

“I think it (civic engagement) is really important,” Deaver said. “The more young leaders we have the better we’ll be.”

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Freedom School

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver (right) and Ashley Ramos look over the children’s book before he reads it to Freedom School students as part of their six-week literacy and civic engagement program at Indian Spring Middle School.

Nationwide, some 160,000 students attend Freedom Schools over the summer. Locally, the program is in its second year and growing.

Last summer, 50 students attended Freedom School at Cesar Chavez Middle School. This year, Freedom School enrolled 68 students getting ready to start sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grade, plus a few Waco High School students. The majority of students attend or will attend Indian Spring Middle School, one of five schools controlled by the new in-district charter Transformation Waco.

“We wanted to try to single in on the Indian Spring demographic because of its IR (improvement required) status and the emphasis on literacy in the district,” Freedom School Executive Director Lakia Scott said. “We wanted to see if possibly three summers of Freedom School makes a difference.”

On average, students lose between two and sixth months of learning during the two months of summer, Scott said. It seems the program is already paying off in preventing that loss, she said.

Comparing students’ reading abilities before and after Freedom School, she can already prove the impact the program has had on the children, Scott said.

“Last year, with our student participants, we were able to proclaim that 97 percent of our students maintained or increased their reading abilities,” she said. “We dug a little deeper to look at their reading level. Many increased reading comprehension by one to two reading levels. These students were prepared.”

At Freedom School, students, or scholars as they are called, are exposed to three texts daily.

“These books are culturally relevant and highly engaging of the students,” Scott said. “The problem we have is that students want to read ahead.”

Kaylynn Goode, 11, a rising sixth-grader at Indian Spring, said she relates to the Freedom School curriculum more than the books she reads during the school year.

“At school, there were a lot of books that weren’t really my type,” Goode said.

But she particularly loves the book she is reading right now, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” by Phillip Hoose.

“The book we’re reading now is about Claudette Colvin, like Rosa Parks she kind of sat on the bus and didn’t want to get up,” Goode said. “When she’s younger she doesn’t really care what color she is, she just wants to end what’s going on between the whites and the colors.”

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Freedom School

Freedom school students engage in a morning exercise before sitting down with Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver.

Goode likes the book so much, she plans to re-read it after Freedom School is over, she said.

Amando Barry, 17, of Waco High School, is a Freedom School intern. Barry said he has noticed a change in some of the male Freedom School students.

“It’s just amazing to see people go from being shy, a lot of the boys being shy, and now they are one of the main ones singing Harambee and all that stuff,” Barry said.

Scott said Freedom School intentionally works to raise students’ confidence.

“I will say that one ultimate goal (of Freedom School) is for kids to actually be excited about learning and see themselves in what they learn and see the power and potential that reading has in their life,” she said. “They’re not just children but they are change agents because of how smart they are and how much power they hold within themselves.”

Lauren Dodd has covered education for the Tribune-Herald since May 2018. A native of Beaumont, Dodd attended Rhodes College and joined the Tribune-Herald in 2018. She previously worked as a reporter at the Seguin Gazette and the Killeen Daily Herald.

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