Freedom School returns to Champaign after nine years of absence


Photo Courtesy of DaNaya Burnett

Students and servant leaders at Champaign Freedom School participate in Harambee on June 21st, 2021: reading aloud and acting out a book for increased engagement. Freedom School comes back to Champaign after being gone nine years.

By Nimet Beyza Vural, Contributing Writer

Champaign Freedom School returned after nine years of absence, offering a six-week summer enrichment program to children K-5 at Garden Hills Academy. 

The program that took place during weekdays from the first week of June until mid-July offered the children of an underprivileged socioeconomic background an alternative education through integrated reading and cultural relevance.

The concept of Freedom School dates back to the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, the schools continue to provide summer and after-school enrichment programs promoting cultural appreciation, relevance and liberatory education to close the education gap for mostly black and brown children who come from poor neighborhoods. 

Drake Materre, graduate student in AHS, and Candace Livingston, doctoral candidate in Education, both worked as servant leader interns at Champaign Freedom School this summer.

Materre, who has been teaching music, political and nutrition education for Black elementary students on the South Side of Chicago for six years, brought a unique type of pedagogy and philosophy of education to Champaign Freedom School.

Freedom Schools originally come from the 1960s “citizenship schools,” founded by the African-American activist Septima Poinsette Clark. They were “created … to increase literacy within the black community, specifically also to help increase voters’ registration,” Materre said. “So a lot of the literacy included reading, you know, reading the constitution and reading laws.”

According to Materre, “Freedom Schools have been teaching an integrated reading curriculum, which focuses on black and brown children, primarily black children, by focusing on literature that is culturally relevant to them.”

Champaign Freedom School educated the students on subjects related to Black history that would not be normally discussed at public schools such as the Black Panthers, black women activists including the theories of Septima Clark and black feminists who have contributed to the creation of Freedom Schools, according to Materre.

Champaign Freedom School, founded by Vernessa Gibson, follows the footsteps and legacies of the Freedom Schools with a mission to serve the children in Garden Hills located in the north of Champaign, a predominantly black and brown and low-income neighborhood.

The main mission of the school was to divert away from the test-based teaching methods and instead focus on student motivation while “trying to bring out their love for learning,” according to Materre. 

The classes were followed by afternoon activities such as chess, checkers, sports, collaborative art and stepping.

“I taught stepping which is something that is rooted in our African culture,” Livingston said. “And so, we practiced that. We utilized literally every portion of the body, things around us, our voices and came up with a step routine that also integrated some of the history of the Freedom School.”

The school not only supported children with supplemental education but also provided them with meals both during school hours and packaged meals given for students on Fridays to last over the weekend. 

Livingston said that the Freedom School was “a really beautiful experience where not only our scholars were learning, but us, as teachers, were learning new things every single day from them as well as the community and the members of the community.”

Champaign Freedom School was a pilot summer program but will continue due to its success and positive feedback from students, parents and the community with an addition of after-school programs.

“And, I am really excited to see what (the students) are going to contribute to the world,” Livingston said. 

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