The lesson on that July day told of a slave who taught himself to read and then became such an accomplished poet that young white men paid him to write verses to their friends.

If the slave George Moses Horton charged 25 cents per poem and sold 12 poems a week, how much did he make? Itzel Gama asked a small group of third to fifth graders after reading a book about Horton.

The students called out their answers through masks under a white tent in the Pueblo del Rio public housing estate in southern Los Angeles. After the math exercise, they wrote their own poems.

For Gama's students and the 30 or so other Freedom Schools program participants in Pueblo del Rio, it was a summer like no other, amid a growing coronavirus crisis and a national movement against police brutality following the assassination of George Floyd.

Since 1995, Freedom Schools have been filling summers mostly with Black and Latin American children from low-income households across the country, offering classes and books about who looks like them – a boy with Puerto Rican heritage trying to make friends black boy in Chicago making sense for his classmate's death from gang violence.

As students improve their reading, writing, and math skills in the six-week program, they learn that they, too, can change the world – a particularly relevant lesson in the face of ongoing upheaval.

"Over the summer, we basically taught the children a lot about their history and the barriers we must overcome," said Cory Butler, Freedom School site coordinator in Pueblo del Rio. "If they understand where we come from, they can better understand where we are going."

The Freedom Schools founded by the Children’s Defense Fund were modeled on schools of the same name founded in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to teach black history, leadership and the principles of the civil rights movement, as well as basic knowledge. The fund oversees the program, which runs in more than 180 locations across the country, but each school pays its own way.

“It's the pedagogy of empowerment. That's what black and brown kids need, ”said Mark Ridley-Thomas, a longtime proponent of the program. "You need a sense of validation that lets you know that you can do it against the odds."

Freedom School teachers are students or graduates of the area. They get summer jobs and teaching experience while students get role models.

Students pay no fees and receive free meals during class. That year, the Pueblo del Rio program, which primarily served students living in the housing estate, struggled to pay for its expenses despite an L.A. County grant that included books and training.

Alfredo Gama, a volunteer on the program, started a GoFundMe for basics like meals, teacher salaries, and coronavirus hygiene items.

COVID-19 also forced the cancellation of many summer programs and hit Black and Latin American families particularly hard with job loss and illness.

"This summer gap is very important, especially for our children in low-income settings," said Clarke Patterson, a teacher at the Pueblo del Rio site. "It is important that we can fill this gap a bit so that they don't fall behind for the coming year."

Due to coronavirus concerns in the middle of the program, Freedom School had to move from a leisure center in Pueblo del Rio to a smaller outdoor space under two tents. The lessons had to be staggered, with kindergarten teachers meeting second graders in the mornings and third to eighth graders in the afternoons. Noise from the nearby train tracks was a distraction. Some students dropped out and the attendance of 35 students decreased by about half.

The program ended days before the first day of online class in the LA school district. To further support the students, two teachers from Freedom School are looking for funding for a mentoring center in Pueblo del Rio that will provide internet access and help students with online homework during the school year.

Currently, Freedom School graduates head to their online school with a newfound sense of themselves and their story.

9-year-old Alex enjoyed reading Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a comic by author G. Neri and illustrator Randy DuBurke based on the true story of an 11-year-old boy whose classmate was gang killed Shoot.

Hired to create his own comic book, Alex decided to write a more hopeful ending and portray the victim of the shooting in a more positive way.

"I made drawings that made him more beautiful and that was better than anything to do with gun violence," said Alex, whose guardian asked that his last name not be used because he is under care.

Some students are pondering what they have learned from this summer's protests against the police treatment of blacks and Latinos.

"Freedom Schools is helping people learn about their equality, and now that something has happened, Freedom Schools are even more excited about it," said Marina Delavega, 13.

For 14-year-old Cherish Purnell, the program itself is a form of protest based on getting along better rather than marching on the streets.

"I think Freedom Schools is a protest to bring all colors together and help us get to know each person's background and experience," she said.

Frank Rojas is an editorial assistant at The Times. He was a teacher at Freedom Schools in 2017.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here