Tech professor wins National Literacy Award, spotlights Elinor Ross Freedom School

Amber Spears
Amber Spears 

Amber Spears, an associate professor of literacy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Tennessee Tech University, recently received the Celebrate Literacy Award from the International Literacy Association (ILA). This recognition marks a significant milestone for Spears, as she becomes the first faculty member at Tennessee Tech to receive this distinguished honor.

A native of Sparta, Spears was nominated for the award by Randall Kincaid, a board member of the Literacy Association of Tennessee (LAT) from Sevierville. In April 2023, she was presented with the award in recognition of her outstanding contributions to promoting literacy, particularly through her work with the Elinor Ross Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School. This high-quality summer program is named for the late professor Elinor Ross – a tireless champion for and generous supporter of reading and literacy education.

The ILA’s Celebrate Literacy Award is bestowed upon organizations, institutions and individuals that have made noteworthy literacy contributions at the local, state, or provincial level. According to Spears, the ILA’s mission is to provide equitable access to education, opportunities, and resources to every child worldwide. This philosophy resonates deeply with her, as she strives to ensure that every child, regardless of their background, is empowered to reach their full potential and actively contribute to their communities.

Spears earned a Ph.D. in Exceptional Learning/Literacy, an Ed.S. in early childhood education, a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction/literacy, and a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies: K-8 elementary education, all from Tech. For the university’s College of Education, she teaches various courses related to literacy education, literacy development, instructional strategies for reading and writing, as well as literacy leadership and professionalism. This fall will mark her 15th year of dedicated service at Tech.

Since 2019, the College of Education has collaborated with the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools as a partner, operating the Elinor Ross CDF Freedom School on the university's campus. Through this program, Spears and her team seek to instill a love of reading and discovery in the hearts of their young scholars while combating the learning loss often experienced during summer breaks. 

Freedom School participants Iker Ortiz, Kia Torres and Joseph Dzenga.
Freedom School scholars Iker Ortiz, Kia Torres and Joseph Dzenga.

“This impactful initiative not only strengthens children's reading and comprehension skills, but also empowers them to become lifelong learners,” said Spears. 

The Ross CDF Freedom School at Tech has served approximately 140 children and their families since the program’s inception and plays an essential role in the broader national effort, with approximately 7,200 children benefiting from the program at 152 sites each year. The CDF’s mission is to ensure that every child has a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life and a successful path into adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

Spears humbly acknowledges that the actual recipients of the ILA award are the hundreds of individuals who contribute to the success of the summer program. She feels that the true excitement lies in recognizing the positive impact the program has had on the participants. It is their growth and development that fuel her passion and commitment to the cause.

The six-week program is provided free of charge to children and families in Putnam County and is available to students from kindergarten to sixth grade. Their days are filled with an engaging variety of high-impact learning activities such as sustainability projects, STEM exploration, music, art, swimming, sports, dance, and interactive field trips.

The Ross CDF Freedom School collaborates with numerous local businesses, organizations, and independent donors, including Cummins Filtration, The Putnam Room, Advanced Cleaning Service, Citizens Bank, IMPACT Cookeville, and other regional non-profit agencies like Feeding the Future, to ensure its success.

Freedom School participants.
Freedom School scholars pet a baby goat during a field trip to Amazin' Acres of Fun in Sparta, Tennessee. 

Spears expressed deep gratitude to the Tech community for providing a platform to host the program on campus. 

“By offering this transformative experience to underserved populations and potential first-generation college attendees, the university – through positive early exposure – plays a crucial role in building confidence and fostering educational aspirations,” said Spears.

For more information on the Elinor Ross CDF Freedom School please visit and for more about the International Literacy Association visit 

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