Freedom School Program Liberates Kids in Probation Camp from Mark Ridley-Thomas on Vimeo.
This summer, the kids in seven California juvenile probation camps located in LA and Alameda counties will experience something called Freedom School—a combination literacy enrichment program and self-esteem building strategy that is the brain child of the Children’s Defense Fund.
For decades, Freedom school has been used to improve literacy and a love of learning for kids in communities around the nation, through the use of some unique strategies including a sort of noisy, high-energy pep rally called the Harambee (Swahili for Let’s Pull Together) that occurs at the beginning of each school session.
Eight years ago, CDF brought the program to juvenile justice facilities in four states: Minnesota, Texas, Maryland, and New York. Then, in the summer of 2013, with the sponsorship of LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, LA County Probation agreed to try out Freedom School in two of the county’s juvenile probation camps on a pilot basis—Fred C. Miller Camp in the hills of Malibu and Afflerbaugh Camp in the LaVerne.
Although there was initial resistance from some of the probation staff at the LA camps, particularly during the morning Harambee—which featured cheering, singing, energetic jumping and dancing—the two-camp pilot was deemed a success.
When a team from UCLA, USC and Vital Research evaluated the before and after effect of Freedom School on the camps probationers in the two camps, researchers found that the kids’ reading scores went up an average of 51 points. Their love of/interest in reading increased as well, as did their own anecdotal ratings of their reading ability.
But, the researchers noted that one of the areas was in need of improvement. There was a lack of “buy-in,” they said, by many of the probation officers in the two camps. “The role of Probation Officers was observed as being limited…only sticking to their traditional roles of disciplining and monitoring students,” wrote the evaluators.
More specifically, although some of the staff seemed to embrace the program, others declined to participate in any of the group activities and instead stood off to the side frowning, barking at kids for minor pretexts.
With the idea of improving staff “buy-in,” in preparation for this summer’s expanded Freedom School, the California Children’s Defense Fund (CA-CDF) brought a larger than ever group of probation officers, teachers and others involved in the program, to the week-long preparatory, Harambee-heavy training that began over the weekend in Knoxville, TN, and which featured superstar civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson as one of the weekend’s kick-off speakers.
And this year, the event in Knoxville includes special juvenile justice training sessions, during which those working with the programs inside youth justice facilities can exchange ideas.
“In the CDF Freedom Schools program children learn to fall in love with reading and are engaged in activities that develop their minds and bodies and nurture their spirits,” said Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund. “The children are encouraged to dream about college and set goals for themselves, and for many of them, the program is a life-changing experience.”
The same appeared to be true in 2013 for many of the kids at LA County’s Camps Afflerbaugh and Miller.
“I used to get Ds and Fs in school,” said one sixteen-year-old who participated in the Freedom School pilot at Camp Afflerbaugh. “Now I want my family to know I get Bs and Cs. And I want to go to college and become a counselor so I can help other kids learn how to read.”
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