Stony Brook brought back low-income schoolchildren for third summer of literacy and empowerment program
Freedom School is growing up — or rather the young Freedom School scholars at Stony Brook University are. Many of the 50 elementary school children from the Longwood and Wyandanch school districts who participated in Stony Brook’s pilot program in 2013 were back on campus for their third summer this year, and they were more excited than ever about being here.
“The children, who are fifth graders now, are maturing and their enthusiasm for Freedom School is off the charts,” said Stony Brook EOP/AIM Director Cheryl Hamilton, who co-directs the Freedom School program on campus.
“You see the enthusiasm every morning during Harambee.” (A Swahili word for “Let’s pull together,” Harambee begins each day with motivational cheers, chants and songs).
“But then you see them in their classes, and they are so excited about the books they’re reading,” Hamilton said. “These aren’t the kinds of books they’re going to get in their regular school. These are books that are helping promote the values we want to promote and helping them to learn how they as 10-year-olds can make a difference in their families, their communities, their country and their world.”
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. According to the CDF, since 1995 more than 135,000 pre-K–12 children have had a Freedom Schools experience and more than 18,000 college students and recent graduates have been trained by the CDF to deliver this empowering model.
Stony Brook University became a partner in 2013 and established the first Freedom School on Long Island and the only one operated on a university campus.
Charles Robbins, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Colleges at Stony Brook, who directs the program, said, “Our intention is to continue to invite the same cohort of students back each summer and try to keep them engaged with the University.”
Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. has committed to funding the program, which is free to participants and includes two nutritious meals and a snack each day, at least through 2017. An important component of the program is weekly required parent meetings that take place in their home communities, and another is that each week the children can select a book from the Freedom School library to take home and add to their own family library.
“President Stanley supports [SUNY] Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s initiative to build a pipeline for young New Yorkers to be able reach the State University of New York system, and we believe this is an excellent way to begin that process,” said Robbins. “Getting these children to dream about their futures, including attending college, is an incredible thing.”
The children — called scholars in Freedom School — love being on campus, said Freedom School site coordinator Maralyn Walker ’14, ’15. “Most of them say, ‘I go to Stony Brook University,’ and it’s not uncommon to hear that when they reach college age, Stony Brook is where they would like to go.” Walker, who has both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work from Stony Brook, has been involved with the Freedom School since its inception. This was her first time managing the program’s day-to-day activities.
Keneha Buckmon, 10, from Wyandanch, has been attending the Stony Brook Freedom School every summer since the pilot program. “Before this, we had to force her to go to school,” said her father, Kenneth. “But since she’s come to the Freedom School, she’s more eager to go even to her normal school. So it’s had a positive effect on both her summer school program and her normal school program.”
Keneha’s mother, Shanava, said that when her daughter comes home from Freedom School, she’s excited about what she’s learned, and added that “Miss Danielle” deserves much of the credit for that. Danielle Meyers ’16, studying toward her degree in social work, is one of the Stony Brook Freedom School servant leader interns whose commitment and enthusiasm make the program work.
College Role Models
Freedom Schools trace their roots to the Freedom Summer of 1964, when the first instructors were idealistic college students from around the country who traveled to Mississippi to protest educational inequality and teach literacy. Freedom School instructors today — called servant leader interns — are college students and recent graduates who are continuing that legacy. Before the program begins each July, they receive special CDF training in Tennessee in how to deliver the integrated reading curriculum to the children and how to inspire them to enjoy reading. Most important of all, they are role models for the young and impressionable scholars.
“Our servant leader interns, many of whom have come up through Stony Brook’s EOP/AIM program and have the same background as the scholars, are learning about themselves and understanding what it takes to be an effective leader,” said Freedom School co-director Hamilton. ‘They are also learning what it means to make a difference in someone’s life.”
A Maturing Curriculum
The Freedom School curriculum, which focuses on social justice, has become more rigorous each year as the scholars move up in grade level. “The literature is richer, and I think it resonates a bit more,” said Hamilton. “They’re beginning to get it.”
One of the guests this year was civil rights activist and writer Bernice Sims, who was a teenager living in Mississippi during the historic Freedom Summer of 1964. She recalled the events of that summer and talked to the scholars about segregation.
“Having Sims visit was a great thing because the scholars think that these events — Jim Crowe, the Great Migration, the Freedom Summer — happened so long ago,” said Raymond Holgado ’16, a servant leader intern who is working toward his master’s degree in social work. “But here was a person who lived through it. It was a powerful history lesson for them.”
There were a number of other visitors, many of whom read books to the scholars. The impressive list of read-aloud guests included County Executive Steve Bellone, New York State Senator Phil Boyle, Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, New York State Senator John Flanagan, Babylon Town Councilwoman Jacqueline Gordon and New York State Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, as well as Stony Brook University Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Matthew Whelan, Facilities Operations for the Student Activities Center Director Howard Gunston, Faculty Center Director Patricia Aceves, Career Center Director Marianna Savoca, Michael Ettinger of Henry Schein Inc., Lisa Flanagan of the Richard and Mary Morrison Foundation, and of course, President Stanley, a frequent visitor to the Freedom School.
Although reading is the key component of the program, it’s not the only thing that goes on at Freedom School. The scholars also took part in a wide range of activities meant to educate them, inspire them and teach them how to be caring citizens.
They conducted DNA tests on strawberries, thanks to the folks at Brookhaven National Laboratory, who brought along a microscope for every scholar. They participated in a theater project designed by Lauren Kaushansky, a lecturer in the Department of History. They learned flute-making, courtesy of former servant leader intern Jay Loomis ’15. And they held a food drive to help end child poverty.
And then there were the sports teams. No Stony Brook Freedom School summer would be complete without the help of the Department of Athletics, and some of the most memorable days involved a visit from the Seawolves. The cheerleading team, dance team and Wolfie stopped by, as did the football team and men’s and women’s basketball teams. Head Men’s Basketball Coach Steve Pikiell returned for the third summer, and this year Head Women’s Basketball Coach Caroline McCombs made her first visit to the Freedom School.
“Our teams here are really giving,” said servant leader intern Holgado. “The football and basketball teams actually had a supply drive for our students and delivered book bags filled with supplies to them. They went beyond the call.”
One of the young scholars — Angel Santiago, 10, from Longwood — was so thrilled to meet the teams that he urged his parents to bring him back to campus to see some games. “He encouraged us to get season tickets to see the basketball and football teams,” said his father, José, “so we’re going to be here in the fall. Angel is excited that it’s not the last time that he’s going to see Stony Brook. He’s already talking about coming back next summer, and he’s even starting to talk about going to college.”
Kenneth Buckmon said his daughter Keneha also talks about coming back next July. “She would rather be here than be going on trips. Every summer she looks forward to this, and so do we.”