Freedom School

The Center for Black Educator Development’s Freedom School students show off an environmentalism project they did with paper bags. — Submitted photo

The Center for Black Educator Development celebrated the completion of its first Freedom School program with a student arts ceremony on Thursday evening at Mastery-Gratz High School.

The ceremony featured 100 first- to third-graders from North Philadelphia performing musical and literary works they learned at the Center’s Freedom School — a summer program that teaches literacy, the arts and writing skills through a lens of Black history, empowerment and pride.

“They understand the importance of Black excellence and not striving for someone else’s definition. They understand what it is to be Black and to love being Black,” said Shayna Terrell, director of the Freedom Schools and Pipeline Programs for the center. “Also, they learn they have a rich history and tradition engaging in intellectual activities — reading, writing, activism and caring for our community.”

The founder and CEO of the center, Sharif El-Mekki, said the Freedom School, which operated at two sites — the Center for Black Educator Development Prep and Cleveland Elementary schools — is based on the original model by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the civil rights era but they wrote their own “research-based” curriculum.

Every morning, the students begin their class with affirmations and libations honoring the ancestors, because, according to El-Mekki, “they are a manifestation of our dream and prayers.”

Family, advocates and leaders from the community also visited the Freedom School to lead read-alongs. Democratic nominee for City Council member at-large Isaiah Thomas was one of the readers.

The activism piece had the students participating in community service. The third-graders developed a proposal to improve a playground and presented it to City Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ office. The second-graders visited retirement homes and led the elderly in exercises. The first-graders worked on environmentalism projects — planting beans and writing Earth-friendly messages on paper bags they delivered to ShopRite.

In the classroom, students mainly worked on reading skills, with a focus on phonics. They also practiced writing skills, learning poetry, spoken word and hip-hop.

“If you’re literate, you’re unfit to be a slave,” El-Mekki said. “There’s no such thing as a human being without a voice. We’re going to provide the platform and you speak your piece. That’s how you cultivate activism.”

The other key aspect to the Freedom School was the teaching staff. Ninety-eight percent of the instructors were Black high school or college students, several of whom were from historically Black colleges or universities.

One of the main goals of the center is to recruit more Black teachers and train and prepare Black and white educators to teach Black children. The Freedom School was a way to jump-start this mission.

“Ninety-six percent of public school teachers in Pennsylvania are white,” said El-Mekki. “In Philadelphia, as diverse as it is, at one point, 40 percent were Black. That number has dipped to 24 percent. The Freedom School was a way to do a pipeline.”

Darrien Johnson, a Delaware State University senior, served as a site coordinator this year. She has learned how to accommodate “multiple learning styles, [deal] with children who have learning deficits and getting to the root of their challenges.”

El-Mekki plans for the center to expand the Freedom School model into more communities.

“We believe this is an integral part of the need,” he said. “We want to re-establish it as part of the fabric of Philadelphia.”

Althea Burgett, whose third-grade son attended the center’s Prep Freedom School site, agreed, saying that she wished more people knew about it because of the quality of the academics, the focus on Black pride and the fact that it’s free.

“[Freedom School] is showing them how they can use their voice to do something they care about. It builds confidence and them knowing they have power to change things if they don’t like it,” she said. “Although my son is not very expressive about what he is learning, it’s good to have him in that environment because it’s normal to him — having pride in who he is. He can have pride in it and it doesn’t seem weird for him to be happy or have pride in that.”

Contact Johann Calhoun at newseditor@phillytrib.com or call at (215) 893-5739

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