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Students look to change the world in UVa's Freedom School

After five weeks at the University of Virginia’s Freedom School, Dei Figueroa felt ready to change the world, especially after presenting recommendations to improve the juvenile justice system to elected officials earlier this week.

“I think [Freedom School] teaches a lot of stuff that you also don’t get to learn about in school,” said Dei, a rising eighth-grader at Charlottesville’s Buford Middle School.

Over the course of five weeks at the Freedom School, Dei and nearly 40 other students from third through eighth grade researched the juvenile justice system, took virtual field trips and worked on oral histories about someone who faced an injustice. The program is free and is hosted by UVa’s School of Education and Human Development.

The Freedom School, now in its second year and one of several summer camp options at UVa this year, was held mostly online. Last year, it was all-online. Students also could participate in optional outdoor programs twice a week. The program ran five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The morning sessions were focused on literacy skills as students read books about people with disabilities and from other backgrounds.

“Schools are getting better at teaching you about all these things, but there’s still a lot they don’t teach you about, like how we learned about disabled people,” Dei said. “You never get to learn about disabled people in school.”

The sessions were led by teachers known as servant leader interns. Dei said they liked working with the teachers and getting one-on-one time with them.

“My group was really small, so we all got to know each other a lot better,” Dei said.

The Freedom School, an initiative of the Children’s Defense Fund and rooted in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project, is aimed at helping to build literacy skills through culturally relevant practices and community and civic engagement, according to UVa.

One of the final activities of the program was the Children’s Defense Fund National Day of Social Action, held Wednesday. This year’s theme was juvenile justice, so students spent weeks learning about the issue, including hearing from the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Virginia Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. They also crafted recommendations on how to improve the current juvenile justice system, which were presented Thursday to local elected officials.

“It was really fun to do,” Dei said of the presentations. “I’m also really happy that they could listen to us.”

Dei added that they hoped people would actually take action to improve the system.

“Because if they don’t do something about it, then people in power when we’re older might not be able to do it either,” Dei said. “It will be an ongoing cycle.”

The students suggested improving the mental health resources in the system, allowing children to learn from their mistakes and increasing access to education. In addition to the recommendations, students also wrote letters to youth currently incarcerated at the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center to share how they feel about the system and what they would do to change it.

Dei and Malcolm, a rising sixth-grader at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, encouraged others to sign up for the program next year.

Malcolm, who participated in the school last year, said one of his friends hadn’t heard of George Floyd before participating in Freedom School.

“It can teach people who don’t know that,” Malcolm said of the program. “It can bring more information, so they can have a more open mind about things and also they can bring that information and spread it throughout their community.”

The UVa education school’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South partnered with the Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions to bring the program to the area. UVa’s Freedom School is one of three in the state, according to the defense fund.


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