Positivity, reading emphasized at Rizpah’s Children partner Freedom School

By Nadine M. Hasenecz

“Tell me: Who’s in the house tonight?” shouted Shauna Ford, to which 30 children and youth aged 6-13 answered, “Freedom School!”, while forming a circle and moving to the beat that Isaac Boswell banged out on the bottom of an empty orange plastic 5-gallon Home Depot bucket.

The summer program assistants continued the call-and-response: “What’s that place you represent?”

“Freedom School’s where we represent!” the students answered.

This was the scene during harambee time on a recent morning during the six-week Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School established in July at Philadelphia’s Somerset Academy Early Learning Center, a partner of American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) Rizpah’s Children ministry.

While Somerset Academy always offered preschool, after-school care and summer camp for children from infancy through age 13, just this year it added Freedom School, serving ages 6-13. Freedom School is offered free to families, thanks, in part, to funding by a grant from the Virginia and Gordon Palmer Jr. Trust, administered by American Baptist Foundation and awarded during ABHMS’ 2018 grant cycle, as well as a 2018 Rizpah’s Children partner grant provided by ABHMS.

In addition to Freedom School, all of Somerset’s programs combined serve approximately 70 students, says Barbara Chavous-Pennock, Somerset’s executive director.

Harambee is a Kiswahili word that means “let’s pull together.” It’s the name of an energizing, positive portion of the morning in which teachers make announcements, read a book aloud and lead students in cheers, chants and the motivational song “Something Inside So Strong” by Labi Siffre (Polydor, 1988).

The students—referred to as scholars—are taught a number of positive affirmations, including, “You get more with honey than you do with vinegar” and “There are no problems—only solutions.”

“They also learn to let what happened yesterday be in yesterday,” says Tiffany Chavous, director of the summer program. “We teach the kids and staff to move past things because holding on to them can get you killed or jailed. If a student comes in the next day and asks, ‘Am I still in trouble?’, we say, ‘We dealt with that yesterday.’”

As part of the announcements this particular morning, Chavous told the students: “Pay attention to what you’re doing—not to what someone else is doing. Pay attention to your behavior and your attitude. If you come in with an attitude that’s not positive, you don’t have to leave that way.”

The Freedom School theme is “I can make a difference!” Posted on the wall of Somerset’s atrium are sub-themes for each week: “in myself,” “in my family,” “in my community,” “in my country,” “in my world” and “with hope, education and action.”

In addition to positivity, Freedom School stresses reading.

“The hope is that this program instills a greater love for reading, and the students see themselves within the books,” says servant leader intern Thomas Singleton of Palmer Seminary, Wynnewood, Pa. “In September, instead of ‘Awww, we have to read!’, we hope the children will think, ‘I enjoyed reading over the summer.’”

Servant leader intern is the term that CDF uses for any young adult up to age 30 who has been trained in Freedom School curriculum and is responsible for working directly with scholars.

In addition to hearing a story aloud during harambee time, the students were later divided into smaller classroom groups to participate in “DEAR” (“Drop Everything and Read”) as well as the integrated reading curriculum. For the former, each student read silently from any book he or she chose from the classroom shelf. For the latter, they discussed a book read aloud by the teacher and participated in related activities.

“Our main hope is to have a head start on education, revolving around reading and writing,” says servant leader intern Krystal Maldonado of Pennsylvania State University, Abington. “The students lose a lot of progress over the summer. Our hope is to try to keep the reading and writing going.”

In her classroom, for example, servant leader intern Sarai Ford of Delaware State University read aloud “Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet” by Elizabeth Suneby (Kids Can Press, 2018). She not only paused for discussion throughout—What does sustainability mean? What does solar mean?—but also, afterward, led the students in two related activities.

Because the main character, Iqbal, is a Bangladeshi Muslim celebrating Ramadan, the students created Venn diagrams that compare and contrast Iqbal’s family with their own. And because Iqbal created a science project that won an award, servant leader interns guided the students in writing presentation and acceptance speeches for fictitious awards.

Clearly, the Freedom School’s emphasis on positivity is sinking in. In his speech, one 9-year-old boy said, “The future I want is for the world to be a better place,” while another said, “You can be like a mustard seed and move a mountain.”

“My advice is to be you,” one 10-year-old girl said during her speech, while another offered, “Never give up.”

Freedom School is also about having fun. After lunch, students participate in such activities as deejaying, hip-hop, tae kwon do, drumming, African dance, African martial arts and playing such group games as “Hot Potato.”

When asked what she was looking forward to that day, one 12-year-old girl said, “The food is good,” referring to the breakfast, lunch and snack that is provided daily.

Her 11-year-old peer offered, “We’re going to the pool today. We’re going to be doing work and having fun.”

Nadine M. Hasenecz is ABHMS’ senior writer/editor.

ABHMS personnel support Freedom School

American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) personnel are doing their part for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School at Somerset Academy Early Learning Center, Philadelphia, by serving as volunteers and hosting the scholars’ graduation ceremony.

Recently, Dr. Laura Miraz, ABHMS associate executive director, Human Resources Management Services, accompanied the children on a trip to Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum. Field trips are an integral part of the programming that Somerset provides to scholars.

Meanwhile, Beverly Allegretti, executive assistant to the Rev. Dr. Marilyn P. Turner-Triplett, ABHMS director of Healing & Transforming Communities, which includes Rizpah’s Children, was the guest reader during harambee. Allegretti read “Nobody Knew What to Do: A Story about Bullying” by Becky Ray McCain (Concept Books, 2001).

“How many of you have been bullied?” Allegretti asked, raising her own hand.

Allegretti also taught the students how to say good morning in sign language and fielded questions about learning sign language when her daughter, who is deaf, was a baby.

Allegretti said: “I wanted to add another language to harambee.”

Somerset’s Freedom School graduation will be hosted on Aug. 16 at ABHMS’ Leadership and Mission Building, King of Prussia, Pa.

CDF is a national nonprofit organization that advocates for children in issues of poverty, abuse, health care, education, morality and spirituality. Growing out of the Civil Rights Movement, it was founded in 1973 by Marian Wright Edelman, who now serves as its president emerita.

Located in 87 U.S. cities in 28 states, CDF Freedom Schools offer summer literacy and cultural enrichment at no cost to families.