Atlanta’s Freedom Schools—Where Learning Feels Like Love

By Melissa Brogdon
Director of Development and Communications, Emmaus House

The Swahili word “Harambee” translates to English as “all pull together” or “the act of joining with other people to achieve a difficult task.” At Emmaus House in Atlanta, the staff isn’t afraid to come together and tackle challenges. And this past summer, Emmaus House’s Freedom Schools program got an extra hand from the Get Georgia Reading Campaign to do just that.

This spring, Coaching for Literacy (CFL) and International Paper teamed up with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to raise $9,000 through CFL’s Fight for Literacy Games. The funds were presented to the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, which supported the expansion of the Freedom Schools® program over the summer months in order to combat the “summer slide” for at-risk children.

Students from the south side of Atlanta access literacy coaching and other academic interventions for six weeks each summer through Emmaus House’s neighborhood school partnership with Barack and Michelle Obama (BaMO) Academy. The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program, hosted at the BaMO Academy, has helped hundreds of children overcome summer learning loss over the past five years.

“Harambee has become a beloved part of our vocabulary,” said Ann Fowler, director of education services at Emmaus House. “It’s a sacred time that kicks off each morning of our program as students gather daily to empower each other, hear from a read-aloud guest, and channel their energy for learning before heading to their classrooms.”

Children from low-income neighborhoods, like Peoplestown, lose two to three months of learning ability compared to their higher income peers who tend to make slight gains. Freedom School helps students increase academic achievement with the goal of ultimately breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

Since 2015, 86 percent of Freedom School students tested have maintained or increased their reading level, establishing a strong foundation of literacy and empowerment through the school’s liberatory curriculum. This summer, 96 percent of students tested maintained or increased their academic reading level. Those students entered school this fall prepared to learn, without having to overcome the summer slide.

“Freedom School provides the extra support and encouragement that can motivate students to push themselves beyond the limitations they may experience during the school year,” said Fowler. “For students who might not experience success in reading in the classroom, Freedom School provides so many opportunities to succeed. You can see how the motivation and enthusiasm increases each day that they attend.”

Freedom School starts every morning with breakfast to fuel the young minds for learning. When Harambee is complete, students separate into their leveled reading classes to begin morning lessons using the Integrated Reading Curriculum developed by the Children’s Defense Fund. D.E.A.R. Time (Drop Everything and Read) is 15 minutes that’s dedicated to free reading before heading off to lunch.

Afternoon activities are diverse and change each week—from enrichment classes such as fine art to weekly swim lessons at Piedmont Park. BaMO Academy teachers also are on hand to help with math. Friday afternoons are reserved for field trips to spots like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, SkyZone, and Noah’s Ark in Locust Grove.

This summer, 120 promising students received instruction from 10 certified teachers at the Freedom School. However, the waiting list indicates that the need significantly outpaces the school’s ability to serve. Students like 9-year-old Jonia who are approaching a critical milestone—being able to read on grade level by third grade—receive vital literacy support during the summer months.

While Freedom School is focused on literacy education for grades K – 6, the program also provides invaluable opportunities for 12 college students to learn to lead as Servant Leader Interns (SLI). Their training takes place at the Children’s Defense Fund Haley Farm in Tennessee, as well as Emmaus House. High school students also have served as Junior SLIs for the past two summers.

“I find it especially rewarding to work in the program because I see how important it is for the young people in our neighborhood to have leadership opportunities and pursue roles that make a difference for their own communities,” said Fowler. “The SLIs often go above and beyond to make learning fun outside of the classroom.”

One SLI, Armoni, had a classroom themed around “The Lion King,” and when the blockbuster was released at the local cinema, she treated all her scholars to a movie night and invited their families to join. This special night provided additional bonding time over a theme they all had grown to love together.

Freedom School staff member Kendra planned a poetry night for a parent meeting that centered on the National Day of Social Action. Scholars wrote poetry, skits, and speeches articulating their views on guns and gun laws—and showed their parents that they are socially conscious and empowered individuals.

The Freedom School program helps students recognize school as a place that can give them the comfort and encouragement they need to thrive year round. The culture and climate plan focuses heavily on creating a site of liberation.

“Scholars are embraced in ways that communicate to them that they’re in a safe space—and that they’re valued emotionally, spiritually, and mentally,” said Fowler. “We approach each scholar and situation with tact and care. Our fundamental mission is to create a place where all our scholars feel genuinely cared for, and where learning feels like love.”