At the Kimberley Park Freedom School, there are no desks.
Instead, chairs are arranged in a circle for both the students and teachers.
There are no “rules” at this school, though there is a “cooperation contract” that students have a hand in creating. The classrooms have themes like Candyland and safari, and every morning starts with a pep rally of cheers called Harambee, which means “let's pull together.”
“It gets the scholars excited about what they're going to experience not only for the day, but for the summer,” says Rashawn Meekins, the lead coordinator for Winston-Salem Freedom Schools and the project director for the program at Kimberley Park.
This summer, several Freedom School locations are offering learning programs catered to K-12 students in low-income areas. Some locations kicked off programming on June 20, though Kimberley Park will start next week.
The programs combat summer learning loss for these students by promoting a love of reading with culturally relevant material.
“All of the literature has to do with children that look like our scholars, and deal with situations that our scholars may face,” Meekins says. “There are books that deal with homelessness. There are books that deal with racial situations, social justice issues, community issues, environmental issues.”
Along with reading those books, Meekins says the students engage in conversations and creative group activities related to the readings.
“They're not doing this specifically through writing or worksheets. They're building things. They're creating things. They're putting together skits to act out things,” she says. “So it's a different way for scholars to show that they learned what was in that book.”
Another part of the lesson has to do with social action. Depending on the issue, Meekins says teachers will show students how they can advocate for change in their communities.
Social action is what started Freedom Schools in the first place.
Marian Wright Edelman, the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973 after spending her career defending people in poverty. Twenty years later, she began developing these schools with her organization.
“They kind of created this Freedom School model from everything that was happening during the civil rights movement,” Meekins says.
According to the CDF website, the organization developed the Freedom Schools with inspiration from the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964. That project involved college students from across the country traveling to Mississippi to promote voter registration for Black citizens.
Now, Meekins says the schools host a day of social action each summer. This year it will be held on July 20, and focus on environmental injustice. In the past, she says the schools have focused on voter registration, childhood hunger and gun violence.
“We teach them about these issues and how, at their age, they can advocate and stand up for the things that they believe in,” she says.
This lesson in social action extends to the parents of the students in the program. Meekins says the schools have weekly meetings where community members visit the schools and teach the parents about various issues and how to advocate for themselves too.
Getting the community involved with the schools is a crucial part of the model, Meekins says. That could mean community members visiting the schools to read and teach, or opening up their business or organization in the area for students to visit during a field trip.
“We encourage the community to team up with us on social action and activities,” she says. “It's not just about the scholars. It's about the parents. It's about the community.”
Last week, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education unanimously approved spending $72,250 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) federal funds to support five Freedom School locations. Each location will serve up to 50 students.
Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.