‘Freedom School’ keeps kids reading and helps prevent summer slide

A new $400,000 grant will look at the program’s educational outcomes

Dozens of elementary students in Forsyth County are getting a boost with their summer reading skills and getting a glimpse of college life on campus at Wake Forest University. They are participating in a six-week program known as Freedom School.

It’s part of a national initiative developed by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). The Wake Forest program began six years ago and today, serves nearly 70 students in grades K through 5 in Forsyth County.

This year’s program runs from June 20 to July 28. The main goal is to prevent summer learning loss and increase a love for reading.

As a result of collaborative growth and success of Wake Forest’s program, the University has been awarded a $400,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to conduct research on Freedom Schools in North and South Carolina. 

The Spencer Research-Practice Based Partnership Grants program will help provide a measuring stick to help determine the effectiveness of the program’s multicultural curriculum on both students and teachers.

Students from Wake Forest and other universities serve as teachers and provide mentoring, leadership development and academic support during the Freedom School.

“When kids aren’t engaged in summer enrichment activities throughout the academic year, they lose some of those skills that they gained throughout the school year, especially for low-income students and students of color. ” Camry Wilborn-Mercer, associate director for inclusive excellence in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. and project director of Freedom School.

There are lots of learning opportunities, fun-filled courses, and interactive group activities, but the main focus is reading. The children read books with meaningful and relatable narratives that allow them to gain insights into their own heritage, history and traditions.   

A Day in Freedom School

Isabel Stormer, an 11-year-old from Winston-Salem has participated in Freedom School for the past three years.

“I love to hang out with other students and be in group projects. The skits are my favorite. We create comedy and commercial skits. I’m learning a lot too. I’ve been more aware of Black history that I never really knew about or had in school,” she said.

Each morning, the program begins with Harambee, which means “let’s pull together” in Kiswahili. There’s a lot of high energy and singing to spark excitement about the day. 

After Harambee, guest readers from the Forsyth County community read a favorite book to the children. The list includes Effie McMillian, chief equity officer for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and State Rep. Amber Baker (D-Forsyth).  

Wake Forest students and student-athletes are also guest readers. They are working with the kids as part of a new education class on campus called EDU 103: Participating in Community Engagement, which offers internships and experiential learning opportunities. 

During Harambee, EDU 103 students support Freedom School teachers in leading the narration and dancing. It’s not rehearsed and they have butterflies when they first get on stage, said Alan Brown, associate professor and chair of the Department of Education at Wake Forest University. 

“Many of them are student athletes who perform in front of thousands of people on a weekly basis and yet when they come here to work with K-5 students, they are nervous. Just seeing those nerves play out and seeing them overcome their nervousness in a teaching environment is special,” said Brown.

Hands-on learning takes on a new meaning

Jaylen Hudson leads a reading activity at Freedom School.

Brown’s scholarship connects academics and athletics, sports and literacy. It shows that the more people move while learning, the more they enjoy the experience and retain what they learn.

“One of the reasons that I was most excited to do this work with Freedom School is because we know that movement supports brain-based learning. It supports academic engagement,” said Brown.  “Student athletes are often great teachers when it comes to thinking about how to get an idea across by connecting movement and literacy.”

As part of their class work, the Freedom School students are writing their own poems.  Wake Forest football player and graduate assistant Jaylen Hudson (’23) came up with the idea. 

“My favorite part is seeing how pumped and excited these kids are about reading and writing. They are striving to be better at it and there’s no quit in them.” Jaylen Hudson - Wake Forest graduate student and WFU class of ('23).

Wake students plan to create a book collecting all of the student poems. 

It’s fun seeing the kids interact and come up with ideas and rhythms in their poetry. They think of things that I never thought of before,” said Payton Cahill, a junior history major on the Wake Forest women’s soccer team from Minnesota.

“They are so creative, how they come up with words just like that on the fly, it’s inspiring,” added Anthony Williams, a senior communication major from South Carolina and member of the Wake Forest football team.

‘Pulling together’ to continue the work and the Spencer Grant

Organizers said they are excited to see more support for Freedom School both on and off campus. There’s been more student fundraising by Wake students over the past two years and an increase in volunteers from the Winston-Salem community.

“Wake Forest and our partners are going to be looking at the overall efficacy Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School training for college interns’ confidence in using culturally sustaining pedagogy as they are working scholars in North and parts of South Carolina. We will also look at the children’s literacy, self-efficacy for reading, and community engagement,” said Dani Parker Moore, executive director of Freedom School and assistant professor of multicultural education.”

As part of the grant, Wake Forest will be partnering with the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington D.C. to help collect data from Freedom Schools in North and South Carolina. Other collaborators are researchers with the University of Florida and the public radio station 88.5 WFDD.

“WFDD and the Children’s Defense Fund’s policy team will enhance the reach and storytelling of the findings,” said Parker Moore.

Wake Forest University Freedom School is hosted by the University’s Department of Education and sponsored by The Office of Civic & Community Engagement, the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost and Dr. and Mrs. Raymond Clarke.

Media are invited to cover the Harambee session of Freedom School on Wednesday, July 19 and Thursday, July 20  from 8:30 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. in Carswell Hall on Wake’s campus. Contact the Wake Forest news office for a schedule of activities and location information: Keri Brown media@wfu.edu or 336-758-4442.

Lots of singing and dancing during Harambee at WFU's Freedom School.
Wake Forest student Demond Claiborne (’26) shows his dance moves during Harambee.
WFU hosts local elementary school students for Freedom School, a six-week, literacy based summer program, on campus on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.
Students show their excitement during a morning literacy activity.
Alan Brown, associate professor and chair of the Department of Education at WFU talks with his students.
Elementary students in Forsyth County participate in WFU's Freedom School.
Wake Forest student athletes and Freedom School leaders join in on Harambee.
Nearly 70 students in grades K-5 are participating in the 2023 WFU Freedom School.
Anthony Williams, a senior communication major and member of the Wake Forest football team, interacts with students.

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