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College of Education opens the region’s first Freedom School

Tennessee Tech graduate student Lindsey Braisted and student Ne’Vaeh Bryant enjoy a laugh during the 2019 Jere Whitson Freedom Schoo, a free, six-week literacy and cultural enrichment program serving kindergarten through fourth grade students from the community.Tennessee Tech’s College of Education is operating a Children's Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School in partnership with Jere Whitson Elementary School in Cookeville this summer.

The 2019 Jere Whitson Freedom School is a free, six-week literacy and cultural enrichment program serving 30 children, kindergarten through fourth grade, from the community. The program, which began on June 12 and runs through July 23, engages children in a student-centered, high-energy environment promoting literacy, love of learning, and civic engagement.

“We are excited to be able to bring the Freedom School model to Cookeville,” said Janet Isbell, an associate professor at Tennessee Tech and executive director of the Jere Whitson Freedom School. “This program is a remarkable educational opportunity for the community, as it engages the children and their families. Also, research has demonstrated that Freedom Schools’ critically acclaimed curriculum can prevent summer learning loss, improve reading scores, and empower kids to believe they have the ability to succeed, and make a difference in the world.”

Amber Spears, an assistant professor and literacy expert at Tennessee Tech, serves as program director of the Freedom School. Spears supervises site coordinator, Tech graduate student Lindsey Braisted, and three interns who undergo extensive national training on literacy teaching strategies, child development, and program implementation.

The CDF Freedom Schools program has its origins in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which brought college students from around the country to Mississippi to secure justice and voting rights for African American citizens.

The program’s 50-year tradition of inclusion supports children and families through five essential components: high-quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

The literacy instruction element centers on carefully selected children’s books. Also, members of the Tennessee Tech and local community are partnering with the Freedom School to offer enrichment experiences ranging from art and music to gardening and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics activities. The children take home new books each week of the program to build their personal libraries, parents and caregivers are offered opportunities to participate in Monday night family events, and Friday afternoons are reserved for field trips. Breakfast and lunch for the children are provided throughout the six-week program.

Since 1995, more than 150,000 children in grades pre-kindergarten through 12 have participated in the CDF Freedom Schools experience, and more than 17,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the delivery of the CDF Freedom Schools model.

Funding a Freedom School program for 30 participants requires $40,000 annually, which includes all program costs and staffing. This summer’s school at Jere Whitson is receiving support from members of the community and some grant funding.

“We are grateful to the generous folks who are contributing to the school,” said Isbell. “We encourage others to contact us about how they can support this year’s school and grow it to serve more children, again free of charge, in the future.”

For more information about the 2019 Jere Whitson Freedom School program, please visit tntech.edu/freedomschool. Learn more about the Children’s Defense Fund and the Freedom Schools program at childrensdefensefund.org. 

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