The noise from Harambe can be heard a block away from the Edison neighborhood’s Tree of Life school, where it is happening.
“Harambe” is a traditional rallying cry used in Kenya, but for the Educating for Freedom in Schools’ summer literacy program it’s more than just a rallying cry for the program — it’s the first daily activity, with singing, dancing, chanting and a visit from a volunteer reader.
“It’s Wednesday at Harambe, and Freedom School’s in the house!” chant the students, instructors and director Demarra Gardner.
“Everyone say, ‘Read aloud,’” Gardner shouts.
The group responds, “Read, read, read, read, read aloud!”
The room calms as the kids settle on the floor and guest reader Julia Dean introduces herself. Dean has a special connection to the program; she used to work in it from 2008 to 2010.
Since she began a master’s program in education at the University of Michigan in 2010, Dean has kept in touch with the program, visiting and donating to it. She begins her visit with a short introduction explaining how she’s connected to the school and what her occupation is. She then begins reading a section of the picture book See the Rhythm, by Michele Wood and Toyomi Igus.
Literacy is the cornerstone of Educating for Freedom in Schools, a nonprofit organization that operates full-time summer and after-school support programs. Both programs offer culturally relevant literacy education to students in the greater Kalamazoo area.
Educating for Freedom in Schools is a partner program to the Freedom Schools Program, a national literacy program funded by the Children’s Defense Fund. On the Youth Program Quality Assessment in 2013, Kalamazoo’s program ranked 4.77 out of 5, which is an “extremely high quality” ranking, in that it shows literacy gains in six weeks of programming that are equivalent to those gained in six months to a year of instructional time in a typical classroom. The Harvard Family Research Project named the Freedom Schools program as a whole one of the top youth programs in the nation.
“Clearly, there is something about this program that is impactful,” Gardner says, “impactful to children who are normally outliers too — the ones that historically fall through the cracks and the ones that have risk factors that might make them unlikely to succeed in this world.”
Designing curriculum that is socially and culturally relevant to the students is one of the reasons Gardner believes the Educating for Freedom in Schools program is so successful. Kids aren’t just reading. They’re reading about something they care about and with which they want to engage. The relevancy and holistic approach of the program — with its focus not just on literacy, but on health, community, social issues and mentorship — appeal to Dean too. It’s why she’s stayed so involved since she left four years ago.
“A lot of the (program’s) books have a historical focus,” Dean says. “And a lot of the songs and literature in the program illustrate the history and cultural expressions of people in different cultures.”
Dean says that when she was working in the program, dialogues started by the readings would spark opportunities to talk about daily challenges the students faced. She says it was one of the most rewarding parts of the program, and something she’s glad to see continue.
As the program grows, Gardner wants to continue to develop an atmosphere where youth are celebrated and encouraged. “All young people need someone who believes in them,” Gardner says. “We think it’s common that all people are embraced with expectations, but that’s not the case for all young people.”
Back at Harambe, Dean has finished reading and it’s question-and-answer time. All kinds of questions are asked and allowed.
“How is it your fiancé lives in Boston and he proposed to you?” one of the students asks.
“That’s a good question,” Dean says before explaining how she and her fiancé met. The question may seem personal, but that’s the point. Educating for Freedom in Schools isn’t just about curriculum and education. It’s about connecting.