Posted on February 14th, 2023 by Lizeth Quinones

IUPUI’s summer Freedom School teaches elementary students to think critically

For six weeks this summer, 50 elementary students will begin each day by sitting shoulder to shoulder in a circle with “Servant Leader Interns” (SLIs) from the IUPUI School of Education and other majors around campus. At Freedom School, which will be held at a local Indianapolis elementary, the students will read books meant to directly reflect their life experience, discuss social issues that are important to them, and—it is hoped—find new joy in the learning process with the assistance of their young teachers.

A curriculum steeped in history

Students in the program

Students in the program.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee created dozens of Freedom Schools during the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project in 1964, as civil rights activists sought to increase the registration of African American voters while empowering and promoting literacy, social justice, and civic participation among young people. Freedom Schools were short term, free to participants, and mobile—they were held in a variety of spaces, from church basements to private living rooms to parks.

In the mid-1990s, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) revived Freedom Schools, establishing a new generation of summertime programs around the country. IUPUI’s program is a partnership between the Center for Africana Studies and Culture in the School of Liberal Arts and School of Education, founded in 2018 and co-directed by Tambra Jackson, Dean of the School of Education and Professor of Urban Teacher Education, and Leslie Etienne, Director of the Africana Studies Program. It is one of 174 active Freedom Schools in 88 cities across 29 states, a few of which are similarly affiliated with university education programs. It is also one of three sites operating in Indianapolis. (Separate Freedom Schools are held at the All Souls Unitarian Church and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church.)

The schools remain true to the spirit of those founded in 1964, with a “focus on literacy and social justice, and ideas about how we break the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Etienne. An integrated reading curriculum is at the core of the program, which “utilizes literature that is more connected to the children’s lives … It provides a more worldly look about what reading might mean and what it can do for the scholar: being able to critically interrogate and question the circumstances in your life, including the societal arrangements that might put you in a category that is unfair or unjust.”

Combating the “summer learning slide” by keeping students actively involved and engaged during the long seasonal break is one of the central goals of Freedom Schools. Etienne says that according to assessments they have conducted at the beginning and end of the program, “we are finding that our scholars are improving over the summer, and that they are going into the school year with a renewed sense of confidence around their abilities in the classroom.” The CDF’s statistics show that trend nationally: 84 percent of Freedom School students avoid summer learning loss in literacy, and 95 percent of the parents of these scholars say they saw increased confidence in their children after the experience.

Immersing IUPUI students in the community

The project director for this summer’s Freedom School is Montayha Adams, an IUPUI graduate in education and Africana Studies, while Khrisma McMurray, a graduate student in library science is the site coordinator. Six interns from IUPUI will work as SLIs and do most of the interacting with the students and their families. The SLIs guide the students through the reading curriculum and STEM- or art-related activities, as well as discussion and education about social justice issues.

“The [IUPUI] students get firsthand experience in community engagement,” says Etienne. “As people who are going to be working in public service or as educators, it is an orientation to what it looks like to do this anti-racist, social justice, critical pedagogical work with students.”

Support the IUPUI Freedom School here.