‘Freedom School’ keeps reading alive through summer

Pausing in the middle of reading “Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?” at a moment when the protagonist of the children’s book, Montsho, has been called the black sheep of his family, Tanya Graham asks 10 elementary school students grouped around her: “Have you ever felt different from your family?”

“This book makes me think about my family,” one student says. “I’m the oldest and have to take care of my sister and my brother.”

Later in the story, when Montsho learns about his African heritage from his grandfather, Graham stops reading again to ask, “Does anyone know what heritage is?”

Several hands shoot up, and one girl with a long ponytail immediately answers, “It’s like a history.”

Graham approves. “Who wants to write for me?” she asks. Half the hands in the room shoot up as the students volunteer to write the word “heritage” on a piece of paper to post on the word wall.

As they continue to read and discuss the story, a girl in a pink shawl says, “This is better than school.”

“It’s Freedom School,” Graham replies.

Graham’s students are among the more than 50 students from Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Winnetka who are attending Freedom School at Stephen S. Wise Temple this summer.

The six-week literacy and enrichment program for low-income, at-risk students aims to prevent the loss in reading skills experienced by many students over the summer. Attending the Freedom School, which began on June 25, is free, and each week students get to take home and keep one book.

Senior Rabbi Eli Herscher neatly summed up the Freedom School philosophy on opening day, when he had the assembled students read the words “Freedom School” on a banner. “If you really want to be free, you need to learn,” he said.

The first Freedom Schools started in the 1960s in Mississippi to educate and empower disenfranchised minority communities. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a nonprofit that advocates for children affected by poverty and disabilities, began its own freedom school movement in 1992. There are approximately 10 other CDF Freedom Schools currently operating in Southern California.

Providing facilities, staff and funding, Stephen S. Wise Temple is the first Jewish site on the West Coast to implement the CDF Freedom School. Its curriculum includes a full morning of reading-related activities and discussion, afternoon activities such as science experiments and gardening and a weekly field trip, along with motivational songs and chants.

The Freedom School students are taught by Servant Leader Interns (SLI), often college students like Graham who attended CDF training seminars.

“Freedom Schools are important because they give children a chance to enjoy reading. Once they love to read, everything else comes easy,” said Tiffany Davis, who worked as an SLI for two years and is now Stephen S. Wise Temple’s assistant site coordinator for Freedom School.

A 1983 study of 600 New York City schools found that about 80 percent of the achievement difference between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged schools could be accounted for by summer learning loss of the disadvantaged students between grades two and six. And a 2010 study by the Center for Adolescent Literacies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte found that nearly 90 percent of Freedom School students grew or maintained in their ability to read.

Mosk principal Barbara Friedrich said 88 percent of her students qualify for free lunch, and added that without the Freedom School the students would probably be at home doing nothing over the summer. “A lot of them are homeless or living in garages,” she said.

Friedrich says Stanley Mosk Elementary is facing additional challenges from the recent funding cuts to education and related social programs. She can no longer afford a full-time intervention specialist to work with her struggling readers. The 421-student campus has 129 English-language learners.

Stephen S. Wise’s Rabbi Ron Stern, who first learned about Freedom Schools from an article in Reform Judaism magazine, knew his synagogue would be a perfect partner for the program. Although most facilities demand a year of preparation and fundraising, the synagogue opened its Freedom School five months later.

Project director Andrea Sonnenberg and Jennifer Smith, Stephen S. Wise’s social justice coordinator, trained with CDF in Tennessee.

“Before every meal, they would ask people to say grace,” Sonnenberg said. “So we said the ha-Motzi on the microphone, and the people went wild. They were so touched and impressed, and thrilled to learn about another religion, and that Jewish people were interested in helping underprivileged kids.”

Stephen S. Wise Temple has even provided some of its own high school students to assist in the Freedom School classrooms, as junior SLIs. The temple hopes to expand its Freedom School in the coming years and to inspire other synagogues in Los Angeles to start their own.

The Freedom School has even provided temple clergy an opportunity to teach the Mosk students about Judaism.

On a recent Friday, Rabbi Lydia Medwin came to morning assembly to read a book to the students and speak to them briefly as a role model.

“Does anyone know what a rabbi is?” Medwin asked.

One student guessed that it had to do with the Lorax, the book in Medwin’s hands.

Another said, “It’s a leader?”

Pointing to the rabbi’s kippah, another student said, “What is that?”

“A kippah is a symbol we wear on our heads, to remind us that we are not the end-all-be-all in this world,” Medwin told the children. “I wear it when I learn and teach, because learning is a very holy thing.”