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Freedom School in the House!

Program that brought low-income children to campus to inspire dreams of higher ed gets green light for four more years

Freedom SchoolStony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD, in his State of the University Address on September 25, announced his commitment to fund an additional four years of Stony Brook’s Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School, a summer enrichment program designed to boost motivation to read, generate positive attitudes toward learning, and raise the self-esteem of the participating schoolchildren.

In July and August, at the Tabler Center for Arts, Culture and Humanities, Stony Brook hosted 50 mostly low-income third-grade students from the Longwood and Wyandanch school districts in the pilot program, which was free to participants and their families and included two nutritious meals and a healthy snack each day. The University absorbed all costs.

Freedom Schools is a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) national program established in 1992 under the leadership of CDF President Marian Wright Edelman. According to the CDF  — a non-profit advocacy organization that works to ensure a level playing field for all children — Freedom Schools partner institutions served more than 11,000 children in 91 cities and 29 states in 2013.

“We had talked informally for a number of years at Stony Brook about bringing a Freedom School to Long Island,” said Charles. L. Robbins, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Colleges at Stony Brook, who led the initiative and co-directed the program. But it never really crystallized, he said, until President Stanley gave the initiative his full support and committed to funding a Freedom School at the University.

“Mrs. Edelman’s program has had such a positive impact on many of our nation’s children,” said President Stanley. “Stony Brook has so much to offer these children in terms of resources. Plus, it was a wonderful opportunity for our students to be role models for the next generation of mentors.”

Mentoring is an essential part of the program. Stony Brook students and recent graduates — called servant leader interns — traveled to the CDF Freedom Schools’ training site in Clinton, Tennessee, before the program began for leadership development, teambuilding exercises and instruction in how to deliver the Freedom Schools’ Integrated Reading Curriculum (IRC) with enthusiasm.

Watch scenes from Stony Brook Freedom School, Summer 2013.

"I Can Make a Difference"
The IRC is designed to excite the young participants  — called scholars — about the joy and fulfillment that comes from reading. Each week’s lesson plan revolved around the theme “I Can Make a Difference.” And each morning began with Harambee.

A Swahili word for “Let’s pull together, ” Harambee is a sort of pep rally meant to affirm every participant’s value and prepare him or her for the day’s learning.

“G-O-O-D-M-O-R-N-I-N-G. Good morning! It’s Monday, at Harambee, and Freedom School’s in the house!”

When Harambee wound down, the scholars eagerly broke off into smaller groups and the rest of the morning was devoted to the reading curriculum.

Afternoons were filled with a wide variety of activities. The scholars performed science experiments with volunteers from Brookhaven National Laboratory; practiced movement with Amy Sullivan, Director of the Center for Dance, Movement and Somatic Learning at Stony Brook; and took part in plays that Lauren Kaushansky, a lecturer in the Professional Education Program in the Department of History, had adapted from books in the curriculum. They even made an arts-and-crafts version of the University shield as a gift for President Stanley.

Freedom SchoolThere was also an impressive list of guest readers, including President Stanley; Stony Brook Senior Vice President for Administration Barbara Chernow; Stony Brook Basketball Head Coach Steve Pikiell and Football Head Coach Chuck Priore, who brought their teams; New York State Senator John J. Flanagan; Congressman Tim Bishop; and former New York Knicks basketball player John Starks, who connected with the scholars on a very personal level. 

“Starks’ message was that education is vital to succeed in life,” said Justin Lawrence ’11, ’13, a servant leader intern who graduated from Stony Brook with a BA in psychology/sociology and a master’s in social work. “Hearing it from someone like him was very important for the scholars because he’s been through the struggle that some of them are going through now.”

Even Seawolves mascot Wolfie stopped by to the delight of the scholars, who proudly demonstrated their cheers and chants for him.

Inspiring Minds
Over the course of the program, each child was encouraged to take home a book a week. They also were given Stony Brook T-shirts, backpacks and water bottles. “Getting them to dream a little and to think of themselves as having higher education in their future is incredible,” said Robbins.

Stony Brook EOP/AIM Director Cheryl Hamilton, who co-directed the CDF Freedom School program, said much of the credit for getting the third-graders engaged and thinking about college goes to the Stony Brook servant leader interns, who were exceptional role models.

“I'm not sure they even realize the impact of their efforts,” she said, “but it is clear that they have inspired this group of third-graders to become Stony Brook University scholars.“ 

The servant leader interns came away inspired as well.

John Starks“I’m an EOP student, and when I came in as a freshman, I wanted to work for the UN, changing policy and things of that nature,” said Angelique Lucien, a political science major who is a junior at Stony Brook. “But with this, I feel now that my calling is working with children. They inspire you to make a change in this world and to be a better person.”

Stony Brook Site Coordinator Nicole Palmer, a residence hall director in Stony Brook’s Irving College who managed the program’s day-to-day activities, said she was inspired not only by the children, but also by the University’s commitment to reach out to its neighbors.

“At Stony Brook, our administrators are really making an effort to connect with the community outside of Stony Brook,” she said. “They’re taking the resources that we have here at the University and opening them up to the people in the community. That’s been very important.”

Looking Ahead
It may be too soon to tell how successful the pilot program was, but Robbins believes the six weeks made a difference in the lives of the third-graders and their families.

“The parents reported that their kids were reading more, and that they wanted to get up in the morning and come to school,” he said. “There were also a lot of tears on the last day. That meant that the relationships were there.”

Now that funding for the Freedom School has been extended, Robbins said the intention is to bring back the same group of scholars next summer. The program’s learning level will move up as the children move up in grade level.

In the meantime, the scholars and their families will be invited back to campus for basketball and football games and to the Staller Center. “We want to keep them engaged with us,” said Robbins.

— By Patricia Sarica


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