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Philadelphia Freedom Schools, built for Black children, tackle literacy and love

“My entire career, I’ve been chasing my childhood,” said Sharif El-Mekki, who spent his formative years as a student at a small Philadelphia Freedom School.

Teens and children come together during Harambee -- a ceremony to welcome students to Freedom Schools Literacy Academy Harrity in West Philadelphia. Formal Freedom Schools date back to the 1960s in the U.S. South.
Teens and children come together during Harambee -- a ceremony to welcome students to Freedom Schools Literacy Academy Harrity in West Philadelphia. Formal Freedom Schools date back to the 1960s in the U.S. South.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Around the circle, the faces formed a study in concentration — some joyous, some determined, all ready.

“I said I LOVE being Black!” they chanted, a gym full of Philadelphia elementary school students and the young people spending the summer teaching them lessons about reading and embracing their identities.

The first formal Freedom Schools began in the summer of 1964, when U.S. civil rights workers taught children and parents about their rights in an effort to counter the poor education Black people received: Mississippi, for one, lacked a compulsory education law.

In Philadelphia, Freedom Schools have existed since the 1990s, mostly as summer programs built along the same ideals of the `60s schools. For three years, a growing number of students have enrolled in Freedom Schools Literacy Academy, a project of the Center for Black Educator Development, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit built to diversify the teaching force. This summer, 144 students are enrolled at three Freedom Schools Literacy Academies in Philadelphia and Camden.

Mornings are for literacy and project-based learning (community gardens, civics projects). There’s drumming and martial arts, and then weekly trips, all free for families. Most students are Black. Most attend high-poverty schools.

Sharif El-Mekki spent his formative years as a student at Nidhamu Sasa, a small Philadelphia Freedom School that shaped him into the person he is today: a former city teacher and principal, the center’s founder and chief executive, with a national profile in education circles. (The school also produced Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.)

“My entire career, I’ve been chasing my childhood,” El-Mekki said. Nidhamu Sasa was a full-time school; El-Mekki’s Freedom Schools Literacy Academy runs for six weeks. But the aims are the same, both “built with a love of Black children in mind on the front end. There aren’t many schools that say, ‘We built this with the love and success of Black children in mind.’”

On a recent Thursday morning, the 48 students at the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy housed inside Mastery Charter-Harrity Elementary in West Philadelphia gathered as they always do, for Harambee -- a kickoff to the school day. They listened to a staffer read Ada Twist, Scientist, a book about a precocious Black girl, and set the mood for their day with songs, affirmations, chants and cheers. One student was chosen for “libations,” pouring water into a plant to honor ancestors and future generations.

“I want you guys to work hard in class. Focus!” site coordinator Stephen Brown said to cap the joyful ceremony.

Immediately after Harambee (Kiswahili for “all pull together”) Horace Ryans III led his six second graders through an exercise: What’s a survey, and how do you take one?

“The purpose of a survey is to gain information and thoughts,” Ryans said, walking his students through taking a survey of their own — how many people in the room were left handed, and how many wrote with their right hands. (Answer: eight right-handed people, one left.)

Ryans is 19, a rising sophomore at Morehouse College; Freedom Schools Literacy Academy is intergenerational, with college students as teachers and high school youth in support roles in classrooms, all mentored by veteran educators. The program functions as an apprenticeship of sorts, with an eye toward attracting more teachers who look like their students.

Nationally, teacher diversity is abysmal. In Pennsylvania, a third of all students are children of color, but only 6% of educators are people of color. Research shows the benefits of having diverse teachers, particularly for Black children, who are 13% more likely to enroll in college if they have one Black teacher by third grade, and 32% more likely to go to college if they’ve had two Black teachers early on.

Ryans grew up in the Northeast and attended strong schools. But he didn’t have his first Black teacher until he was in sixth grade at Independence Charter School, and didn’t have his first Black male teacher until freshman year at Science Leadership Academy.

For a long time, “I never saw myself in education because I never saw a Black man as my teacher,” Ryans said. Now, that’s shifted, and he plans on making education his career.

“My own philosophy is -- if I’m not going to march, you’ll see me in the classroom teaching the next generation of leaders,” he said. “Sometimes, I think, ‘Am I doing enough, are they getting this concept?’ But when they have a fantastic day, it’s this indescribable feeling, and I feel like I’m doing my part in social justice.”

Black students typically lag peers in achievement as measured by standardized tests. Freedom Schools kids gained ground in reading measures, an examination of 2020 metrics showed.

“If kids need more help, then that’s what we’re going to give them” said Christian Sabree, a Freedom Schools teacher who’s about to graduate from West Chester University. “This epitomizes what education can and should be for students.”

Sabree attended Philadelphia Catholic and charter schools. He was classified as a special education student. He slipped through cracks.

Now, “I want to be the person I needed when I was younger,” said Sabree, 23. It’s about helping a child realize that the letters t and h together make the “th” sound, but it’s also about learning kids’ backstories, staying with them if they have tough days and figuring out what they need to shine.

“These kids may not remember my face someday, but the lessons we’re teaching them will last a lifetime,” Sabree said. “Some kids will tell me, ‘I don’t like school, but I like Freedom School.’”

Briana Jackson, the site coordinator at the Camden Freedom School, remembers when a student came up to her excitedly, pointing to a book she was reading. The character was a girl like her, with hair in an Afro puff. The girl was incredulous, delighted.

“Kids feel free here — ‘I’m learning these things, this is what I want to do and this is how I can get there,’” said Jackson, 26, who works as a kindergarten teacher in a Camden charter school during the year. “No one feels shut down.”

Spending summer break at Freedom School is fun, said Zach German, who attends the site at Mastery Prep Elementary in North Philadelphia.

“It’s better than regular school, it’s fun,” said Zach, 8, a rising third grader. “I like the activities, I like to drum, I like to dance. We learn about syllables, opinions, how to make music. In regular school, you don’t learn so much history.”

Amid a national racial reckoning, so many families applied to send their children to Freedom Schools this summer that the Center for Black Educator Development didn’t have a place for all of them, El-Mekki said. But the concept isn’t new, and it didn’t just find equity once that became a buzzword and some schools and districts started working backward to course correct.

Too often, El-Mekki said, those equity efforts “are just window dressings on the 13th floor of an institution that was founded without Black children in mind.”

Freedom Schools are the antithesis: The young people who circle up for Harambee every morning will encounter anti-Black messages in the world, but they will have armor against them, El-Mekki said.

“When people ask them, ‘Who taught you to love yourself?’ they can say, ‘My school did,’” said El-Mekki. “My Freedom School did.”