Jared Littlejohn, a 19-year-old Maplewood resident, helps lead a boisterous group of youngsters in “harambe” -- a chant styled on African tradition -- assembled in the gym at Bethany Baptist Church last week. A little girl clings to another instructor, Geneva Lewis, who is about to enter a graduate program in education at New York University.
The fun is all part of the Bethany Freedom School, one of scores of similarly named summer literacy programs hosted across the nation by the Children’s Defense Fund and local partners, like Bethany Cares Inc., the community outreach arm of the church.
Begun in 1995, about 90,000 students nationwide have taken part in Freedom Schools, where instructors take a multifaceted approach to bolstering reading skills. Parents and caregivers take part in the students’ education process, and instruction is also given in nutrition, health, leadership and civic engagement.
Freedom Schools also place a special emphasis on educating children of color, using texts written by African-Americans.
Another chief aim of the school, said Dale Anglin, chair of Bethany Cares Inc., is to combat the drop-off in reading ability that occurs among youngsters during the three-month summer break. While the phenomenon is seen in all children, the problem can be especially acute among inner-city kids.
One hundred eighty hours of literacy instruction is a “proof point,” Anglin says, just enough summertime schooling to halt the erosion of skills seen among children who are idle during the long vacation. “Research shows that you need that much to stop the loss of literacy.”
The students who take part in the program during the summer return to school poised to take the next step in their educations, instead of spending the first several weeks of the new school year re-learning what they’d mastered the previous year.
The program at Bethany, which this summer serves 75 children in grades K through six, runs for several weeks, beginning almost immediately after school ends and continuing until the first week of August. With a low student to teacher ratio of 8 to 1, it costs about $1,300 per student, but about 90 percent of that cost is paid for throughindividual, private donations as well as grants from a number of businesses and philanthropic groups, including PSEG, the Victoria Foundation, the Turrell Fund and Prudential. Parents themselves pay just $125 per student.
The Freedom School, which takes its name from the impromptu learning programs set up in the Deep South during the civil rights era of the early 1960s, also educates another group -- parents.
“A lot of our parents don’t trust the school system, partly because a lot of them did not have a good experience in school themselves,” Anglin says. “We train our instructors to make this welcoming for parents. The first thing our parents hear from our staff is not something their kid did wrong.”
‘It’s a great program,” said Simone Bedasse, whose five-year-old daughter Amber attends the Bethany Freedom School. “They keep the kids very active and they’re more rounded. They do a lot of activities, not just reading.”
Like many of the parents, Bedasse heard about the school through word of mouth. Anglin - who said she would like to see the school expand eventually -- said “there’s always a waiting list. We don’t have to advertise, about half our kids come back every year."
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