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Photo- Samaria Bailey/Tribune Corespondent

The Center for Black Educator Development will host their Freedom Schools Literacy Academy (FLSA) virtually this year, citing an especial need as the pandemic has shut schools down, leaving Black and brown students vulnerable.

This summer marks the Center’s second annual Freedom School, a program that comes out of the Civil Rights era's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and uses reading to teach racial uplift.

“We believe that we can’t sit on our laurels during a pandemic. Deep and violent racism is this country’s original birth defect and, consequently, racism has been America’s endemic ever since. We learned from our ancestors, that the work continues and that no generation can expect not to fight for justice, it’s just a matter of how. We choose to fight for racial and educational justice through our organizational programming, programming like FSLA,” said Sharif El-Mekki, Founder and CEO of the Center.

“Once we realized that optimal conditions wouldn’t be realized, we spoke to our board and they encouraged us to continue to find ways to serve our community virtually. The team felt that while parents and students might feel “zoomed-out” they also expressed concerns about their children falling further behind. If there are ways we can support our families, we are going to try to do it.”

Shayna Terrell, Director of Pipeline Programming, stated a similar point, stressing that education gaps already exist between Black and brown students and white students, and that the pandemic only made it worse.

“Freedom School was born out of unrest and we are continuing with that legacy. When Black and brown children are put in desperate measures and need support, that’s when heroes and activists are supposed to rise up and create support,” said Terrell. “For Black and brown children, the level of education they are receiving is not on the same level as their white counterparts. Black and brown children are grade levels behind in reading. Teachers are working during the school year to catch them up. Now, [because] COVD hit, students don’t have access to direct instruction. It set our Black and brown babies further back.”

FSLA is literacy-focused and uses Phonics, read-alouds and “mindfulness activities,” to promote excellence in reading, comprehension, and “racial uplift” for rising first, second and third graders. The literature is centered on Black characters and the Black experience. “Healing practices” or “Mindfulness” are also key pieces of the curriculum. The students practice yoga, breathing activities and share outs that let them focus on something special about themselves and their community.

As the Center is focused on recruiting and retaining Black educators, FSLA recruits Black college students to lead the instruction. High school students are also involved as “Junior Servant Leaders,” as they lead read-alongs once a week. In addition, they will study “The Education of Black People” by W.E.B. DuBois and complete a social action project themed “(RE)Vision A Black Education Agenda.”

“We seek to improve the positive racial identity of all the participants in our program so they get a deeper understanding of what it means to be Black,” said Terrell. “Not only that, but so they can also have a deep love for themselves and their worth. The scholars’ (1st– 3rdgraders) books and images - they are flooded with black and brown children. Also, having a staff leading [students] that’s all Black, that paints positive role models for youth, giving them a scope into their future of what they can be.”

Freedom School organizers stressed that the high school and college students will also be exposed to advanced level mentors.

Howard University professor Greg Carr, Ph.D., will lead "Mbongi, a learning space for the High School and College students to come together and discuss "The Education of Black People" by W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the specific activities geared toward racial uplift for the 1st-3rd graders is “Harambee,” which opens the day. The students and staff gather in a circle to sing “motivational and uplifting chants, cheers and songs.”

Kelli Seaton, Ph.D., said the goal of Harambee is “to create a positive and energetic start to the day, incorporating student voice and leadership and acknowledging student work.”

The Center has recruited 28 college students, 40 high schoolers and has filled space for the 120 scholars that were available. A waiting list is open for additional participants.

Since it will be held online, students from all over the country can participate. El-Mekki said they have a student as far as Los Angeles enrolled.

“We believe our work as a community of educators is to continue the historic legacy of Black educators as change agents" he said. "We know that teaching Black children well is a revolutionary act, an act so important and powerful, that we want to start early, as early as elementary and high school students."

FSLA partners and/or supporters include Dr. Nell Duke and team, Dr. Miriam Witmer and team and network; funder the Tobias Harris Fund, TeenSHARP, Spring Point, Philadelphia Freedom Schools, the City of Philadelphia, Dr.. Hite and the School District of Philadelphia, Read by 4th, Mastery Charter Schools, the Mayor’s Office for Children and Families, and Mighty Engine.

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