CDF Freedom School at Clague: So much fun, students don’t realize how much they’re learning

Each day begins with “harambee,” which means, “Let’s pull together” in Swahili. Photos by Jo Mathis.

By Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor

Josiah Sims spent his 11th birthday hanging out with his friends, singing, dancing, and having what he called a “really great time.”

And he did it all at school. In the summertime.

Josiah Sims
Josiah Sims on his birthday

Josiah is one of the 41 members of the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools, a program providing summer reading enrichment for middle school children.

Trained college students and recent grads—mostly from the University of Michigan—lead the six-week program at Clague Middle School.

Program Director Emmy Kirksey said she loves the energy and love for education.

“One of the main things we’re trying to do is combat the summer loss,” she said, explaining that students may forget important things they’ve learned during the school year. “And we do that while making it fun.”

Clague Middle School Principal Che Carter said he’s always interested in partnering with U-M, so when he was approached about the program, he readily agreed.

Students read and discuss a new novel every week.
Students read and discuss a new novel every week. This group gathers round a paper campfire.

Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman has run the program all over the country for the past 20 years. This is the first time it’s been offered in Ann Arbor, which is now one of about 50 cities in the state that hold Freedom Schools.

Most of the 41 students are from AAPS middle schools, and were selected by counselors and principals for their leadership potential as well as the fact that they could benefit from some extra helping with reading comprehension, Carter said.

It initially started with only Clague students, but expanded to include Tappan and Scarlett middle school students as well as a few from Ypsilanti.

“We looked at a lot of different criteria because it’s not a summer school program; it’s a summer learning program,” said Carter. “I’m very excited about it.”

The CDF Freedom Schools program “boosts student motivation to read, generates more positive attitudes toward learning, increases self-esteem and connects the needs of children and families to the resources of their communities,” according to its website.

The national program follows a tested itinerary template.

Domonique Weston, a recent graduate from the University of Michigan School of Education, is one of the Freedom Schools’ “servant leader interns.”

“Freedom Schools promotes the empowerment of children to be able to make a difference in this world right now,” said Weston, who hopes to have a career in school extension programs and non-profit organizations that work toward educational equity. “It gives students the tools they need to be able be activists for what they believe in.”

Central Michigan University student Omar Davidson has also become a fan.

“It’s a daily process, and (the students) are evolving each day,” said Davidson, following a motivational opening session he helped lead. “They came as kids coming off summer break, and now they’re evolving into students who are more engaged. They’re reading more, reading better, and comprehending what they’re reading.”

Each day begins with “harambee,” which means, “Let’s pull together” in Swahili. At each harambee, an adult from the community reads something aloud that sets the tone for the day. The students also sing and dance and get pumped for the day.

Then the students go to their individual rooms to focus on multi-cultural literature. Every week they get a new novel to read, which they keep at the end of the course.

“We pick novels that are fun, so that they don’t even realize that they’re learning,” said Kirksey.

Every week has a theme. Week One was “I can make a difference in myself.” Week Two was “I can make a difference in my family.” Students will also learn how they can make a difference in their community, country and world.

Josiah, who will begin the sixth grade at Northside in September, said Freedom School has been a new way to learn about lots of different things.

“I really like it because I get to do something over the summer that’s really fun,” he said. “At Freedom School, you get to read, which I really like doing. And then you get to do some actual activities together.”

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