Kindred Durant was perched on a stool Monday, surrounded by eight rising sixth graders brimming with energy and anecdotes, trying to focus their attention on the themes of a story poem.
“I think we need to read this one more time because I don’t think we fully understand what the poem says,” said Durant, a recent USC graduate who will begin teaching full time in August.
The youngsters, all rising students at W.A. Perry Middle School, weren’t hesitant about reading out loud or dissecting the images, even as they got creatively sidetracked by stories of the occasional neighborhood confrontation, the epistemological meaning of “what’s up, bro” and whether it is appropriate to cultivate boyfriends and girlfriends in middle school.
Welcome to Columbia’s first Freedom School, a project of the Children’s Defense Fund that aims to enhance reading skills even as it instills a message that middle school students have big contributions to make if they are willing to put in the time to excel.
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Durant, one of 11 motivational interns, was happy when the kids chimed in with strong opinions about the book.
“He puts in more angry words than the other one,” Shakiyah Craig, 11, said of the poetic narrator.
“He says do your thing, be yourself,” said Deshon Thomas, also 11.
USC education professor Tambra Jackson is the creative force behind the five-week Columbia summer school, which is offered free to 110 middle school students. She remembers her own exhilarating experience in 1996 as a Freedom School intern while she was a student at Miami University in Ohio.
“For me, it sealed the deal that education is what I wanted to do,” Jackson said. After Jackson joined the USC education faculty in 2006, she began lobbying potential community and corporate sponsors who might be willing to contribute toward the $106,000 it takes to run a summer Freedom School. There are currently 130 Freedom School sites in 27 states, seven in South Carolina.
Jackson said she made the case for the summer enrichment program when Children’s Defense Fund founder and S.C native Marian Wright Edelman came to Columbia to talk to would-be sponsors about the success of the Freedom Schools, which are modeled on the schools African-Americans established during the civil rights era.
“The first week I would have said forget it,” Jackson laughed of Columbia’s inaugural venture. The children, recently out of school for the summer, were accustomed to sleeping in and couldn’t imagine reading a book a week as the Freedom School program dictates or engaging in frog dissection and other scientific endeavors.
But who can resist a half-hour morning “Harambee” — a Swahili word meaning “let’s pull together” — where energetic college interns chant and sing songs to get children on their feet and shouting?
Jackson has 11 interns, including three from USC, five from Benedict College, one from Newberry College, one from S.C. State University and one from Southern Mississippi University.
The Children’s Defense Fund tracks the reading progress of students, measuring their reading, comprehension and vocabulary abilities before and after the program is completed. Its studies show the students who participate significantly reduce their summer learning loss, Jackson said.
For Jackson, analyzing the training and experiences of the interns, who become what CDF calls “servant leaders,” is just as important. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the training model of Freedom Schools, a model that she believes could be transferred into the traditional classroom to motivate and inspire students, particularly low-income kids and children of color.
For Durant, 22, of Hemingway, the lessons of the Freedom School have been invaluable.
“Freedom School has really taught me some experiences that are unbelievable and some of that experience is being more effective with the scholars,” said Durant, who commences teaching language arts full time at Perry in August. “It has taught me a variety of strategies to use inside of my classroom. Reading is not just opening a book, let’s read it and summarize it.”
The Freedom School concludes Friday, but the learning doesn’t cease. The scholars will hop aboard buses for a three-day sightseeing trip to Washington.