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Freedom School Today, College Tomorrow

Freedom school

The summer enrichment program is opening doors to higher education for children from low-income families — and their parents

Freedom School
Group activities at Stony Brook’s Freedom School

Stony Brook University’s Freedom School will be back in session for the fifth summer next month, and if the past four years are any indication, children from the Longwood and Wyandanch school districts taking part in the program will come to campus eager to jump into the daily activities centered around the program’s perennial theme: “I can make a difference in myself, my family, my community, my country and my world.”

About 30 of the 50 children — called scholars in Freedom School — who started in the pilot program as third graders in 2013 will be back in attendance.

Administered nationally by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) nonprofit advocacy group, the Freedom Schools program provides quality summer instruction to children from low-income families. Freedom School partners give children three fundamental resources needed to develop their potential: literacy skills, social and emotional skills needed to make good decisions, and a community that believes in them.

The program emphasizes social action and family interaction, while aiming to inspire the children to see higher education in their future. It is free for all participants and their families and includes two nutritious meals and a healthy snack each day for the scholars.

Stony Brook University, which absorbs all costs, became a partner in 2013 and established the first Freedom School on Long Island. To date, it is the only one operated on a university campus.

“When we went for the orientation meetings in May last year at the two school districts, it was like old home week,” said Charles Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate colleges, who directs the Stony Brook program. “The parents were very friendly and into it, the kids were all over us — it was wonderful. So I really believe, looking at it from a holistic point of view, that the University is making a difference, not only in the scholars’ lives but in the lives of their families as well.”

Freedom School
Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. reads aloud to young scholars.

“Part of the Freedom School structure is having parent meetings every week,” said Cheryl Hamilton, director of the Stony Brook Educational Opportunity Program/Advancement on Individual Merit (EOP/AIM), who co-directs the Freedom School program on campus. “For the first three years, we just kept them updated on what’s going on in the program. But last year, we developed a really robust parent component, and were able to bring in outside speakers to the parent meetings.”

Some of the speakers focused on how parents could use their voice to make changes in their community and advocate for their children. And others focused on resources in the community to help the parents improve their own lives.

One such speaker was from the Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) on Long Island.

“The EOC is this hidden gem that so few people know about,” Hamilton said. “They basically give free education to residents of New York State; it’s part of this pipeline to the State University of New York system. The speaker kept saying, ‘You can change your economic situation; you can go back to school, and we have these short-term programs.’ So I think it was exciting to see the parents thinking about what their next steps might be. They can get counseling, career advising, assistance with daycare and guidance to college.”

Each summer at the Tabler Center for the Arts, Culture and Humanities, where the Freedom School program at Stony Brook resides, the scholars are being guided toward college themselves through educational and motivational activities, a carefully selected Integrated Reading Curriculum of developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant books, and a series of guest readers that last year included Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and New York State Senators Thomas Croci and John Flanagan.

One of the most important components of the program is the Freedom School instructors, college-age students who serve as mentors and role models to the impressionable young scholars. It is the commitment and enthusiasm of these instructors — called servant leader interns (SLIs) —  and their ability to relate to the scholars that help make the program work. Many come from the same background as the scholars do.

Last summer, Raymond Holgado, MSW ’16 served as the program’s site coordinator, the SLI leader charged with ensuring that the Stony Brook program stays true to the Children’s Defense Fund model. Holgado was raised in a single-parent home and grew up in the lower-income sections of Queens. After dropping out of high school, he earned a GED and went on to become the first in his family to graduate from college. In 2016, he was awarded a fully funded opportunity to pursue doctoral study at Stony Brook.

Danielle Meyers
Danielle Meyers ’16, right, a 2016 Commencement Speaker, has worked for three years as a servant leader intern in the Freedom School and will be back this summer as the program’s site coordinator.

Holgado spoke about the special connection between the SLIs and the scholars: “The scholars see themselves as a part of Stony Brook now, and as likely students. But what they get from this more than anything is that people like us — from the neighborhoods we came from, the environments we come from — we belong in college, too. “

Stony Brook University maintains a strong commitment to providing quality education that is accessible to all, and President Stanley, who has become a familiar face to the scholars since 2013, is one of the staunchest supporters of the Freedom School program and social mobility programs like it.

“President Stanley really believes in this program and in the EOP/AIM program,” said Hamilton. “We’re fortunate to have him in our corner.”

Freedom School will reopen its doors on July 10, and the six-week program already has lined up a number of guests — including Brookhaven National Laboratory, which will bring a week of science to the scholars; County Executive Bellone and Senator Flannigan; the Stony Brook rugby and men’s basketball teams; perennial favorite Wolfie the Seawolf; and, of course, President Stanley — to delight and inspire the scholars, who will be entering 7th grade in the fall.

— Patricia Sarica

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