Freedom Schools programs come to Sacramento for first time

The Roberts Family Development Center recently became home to a summer literacy program sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund.

This is the first time the Freedom Schools program has come to Sacramento. The center is one of 132 Freedom Schools in the nation.

The regional program serves 160 local first- through sixth-graders who will learn to love reading through six weeks of lessons facilitated by 18 college students and recent graduates from Sacramento State and UC Davis. The Center for Adolescent Literacies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, found that more than 90 percent of students at Freedom Schools maintain or gain in their reading ability through the program.

“The idea behind Freedom Schools kind of excites them (the children) about life and education,” said Derrell Roberts, founder and CEO of the Sacramento-based Roberts Family Development Center. “It gives them the feeling like they were someone and that they mattered.”

The program is unique in that it is built on the concept of the 1964 Freedom Summer, said Saira Soto, interim executive director for the California chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund. The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 was organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Council of Federated Organizations. During that summer, college students worked in the South to end segregation and ensure African Americans’ voting rights.

“For us, it’s very important that in six weeks the child grows and that they also have an opportunity to shed a light on how they might take action to improve their lives,” Soto said.

The program uses an activity-oriented curriculum, said Elliot Davis, site coordinator at Roberts Family Development Center.

“The Integrated Reading Curriculum is not designed to teach the mechanics of reading, but rather to help readers and nonreaders fall in love with books and everything that they are made up of – the stories, characters, pictures, ideas and values,” Davis said.

Each book is accompanied by lesson plans that help staff, children and parents reflect on the weekly themes: I Can Make a Difference in Self; Family; Community; Country; World; and With Hope, Education, and Action.

Bel Reyes, program director for the Center of Community School Partnerships at UC Davis’ School of Education, said the books feature story lines that connect with the children.

The curriculum uses 50 book titles, Soto said. Every child takes a book home each week.

The entire summer program at Roberts Family Development Center costs $220,000, Roberts said. The funding pays for 21 staff members, activities, transportation and field trips. Costs related specifically to the Freedom Schools curriculum are $60,000.

The center received additional financial support from the Sierra Health Foundation, Twin Rivers Unified School District and Sacramento City Unified School District to fund the curriculum, Roberts said. Cost of enrollment is based on a sliding scale, he said. Parents were asked to make a contribution.

Every morning, Freedom Schools starts with a group activity called Harambee, a Swahili word that means “let’s pull together.” During the activity, the group sings, talks about aspirations and listens as a guest reads a book from the curriculum.

“Just to be a part of this awesome organization, it gives me goose bumps and tears to know that young leaders are being brought up for this world,” said Cristal Johnson, 52, who sang along from the back of the center as she watched her son, Desmond Cadian, 9, participate in the morning activity. “I’m happy for all of these children that are a part of this. They don’t know how lucky they are.”

Throughout the summer, the kids will learn what it is like to attend college through discussions with interns and guest readers, Roberts said. They will visit regional universities so they can get a glimpse of what the future can hold.

Jennifer Finch, 32, enrolled daughters Ceciliana Parale, 8, and Adriana Parale, 5, in Freedom School and looks forward to the girls’ college visits.

“I think it’s very important for young kids to see something to look forward to, especially in their early childhood,” Finch said.

Parents meet with the staff once a week, Soto said. They learn about nutrition, college preparation, finances, and participating in political causes and voting, Reyes said.

The center and its Freedom School give parents and children a sense of community, Johnson said.

“They’re involved with the community, and they’re helping them become more responsible outside of the home,” Johnson said.

Update (July 8): This story was clarified to state that the overall summer program costs $220,000, while costs associated only with the Freedom School curriculum are $60,000.