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Freedom School gave area students a voice on issues this summer

For five weeks, nearly 70 area elementary school students gathered virtually to read books and learn about civic engagement as part of the University of Virginia’s first Freedom School.

The free summer program was part of an initiative from the Children’s Defense Fund, which created the model for Freedom Schools that includes culturally responsive teaching materials. UVa’s program is the third such school in Virginia and one of 181 nationwide, according to the defense fund.

The last week of the Freedom School gave students a chance to show off posters made for the Children’s Defense Fund National Day of Social Action. The posters, displayed at their homes, focused on what the students think is important. Many talked about Black Lives Matter, encouraging adults to vote for Black rights. Other posters asked adults to vote for COVID to go away and others supported votes in favor of animal rights and cartoons.

“Even if they’re not old enough to vote, they can still have a voice within what’s happening,” said Johari Harris, an assistant research professor and project director of the Charlottesville Freedom School. “They are still very much a part of this movement.”

The Freedom School model, which is rooted in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project, was well-suited to help students incorporate current events, such as the pandemic and protests, into their oral history projects.

“[CDF is] very much focused on social movements and empowering students to be like civic actors in their local, state and national community,” Harris said, adding that the curriculum also emphasizes cultures and narratives that have been traditionally marginalized.

The UVa team, like other programs this year, had to switch to a virtual model because of the pandemic. Harris said going virtual allowed them to open up more slots for interested students. About 70 students from Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools started the program.

During the five weeks, the students, whom the program refers to as “scholars,” went on virtual field trips to Monticello and to the Civil Rights Trail and worked on oral history projects. Each morning of the session focused on literacy skills through a live online program. Classes started at 9:30 a.m. daily.

In the afternoons, the scholars had one-on-one sessions with their teachers for tutoring and relationship-building. There also were optional movie nights.

Harris said Charlottesville and Albemarle schools provided the technology and hotspots, if needed, for students. They also had a bi-weekly pickup of materials where families could get school supplies, T-shirts and books.

UVa’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South partnered with Charlottesville City Schools to bring the program to the area.

“Given the events in of August 2017, our colleagues in the center and members of the Charlottesville community thought a Freedom School could serve as a concrete way for the university and local community to collaborate on a project serving children,” Derrick Alridge, a UVa professor and director of the center, said in a news release. “Grounded in ideals of freedom and social justice, we believe a Freedom School could help bring about healing in Charlottesville and show our collective commitment to advancing civil rights and social justice in our time.”

Charlottesville teacher Christen Edwards oversaw the day-to-day operations as the site coordinator.

Harris credited Edwards, the program staff, their partners and the students’ parents for helping to make the first Freedom School successful.

“When there were technology issues, they were working through it, being patient with us and helping their children kind of engage with us,” Harris said.

The Freedom School was open to any student in third through fifth grade, and UVa students helped to teach the different sessions.

“It’s been pretty incredible,” Harris said. “Speaking as project director, I was a little nervous. It was virtual programming in the middle of a pandemic.”


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