Freedom School Wraps Up Its Second Summer at Stony Brook
Children’s Defense Fund enrichment program that brought children from low-income families back to campus for six weeks culminates in a day of performances and special guests
Stony Brook University’s 2014 Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School concluded on August 15 at the Tabler Center for Arts, Culture and Humanities with the joyful sounds of its young scholars demonstrating what they had learned over the summer to an audience filled with their proud parents, siblings and grandparents. Special guests New York State Senator John J. Flanagan and Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn were also in attendance.
Now in its second year at the University, Freedom Schools are a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) national program established in 1992 under the leadership of CDF President and children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman. Freedom Schools provide rigorous, quality summer and after-school instruction to children from low-income families. The curriculum is based on the belief that all children are capable of learning and achieving high standards.
Following the success of last summer’s pilot program, in which the University hosted 50 mostly low-income third-grade students from the Longwood and Wyandanch school districts, Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., a strong advocate of Freedom Schools, committed to four more years of funding for the six-week program. The same cohort of students — now fourth-graders — was invited back to this year’s program, which was free to participants and their families and included two nutritious meals.
Charles L. Robbins, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Colleges at Stony Brook, who led the initiative and co-directs the program, said that it was important to keep the relationship going between the University and the Longwood and Wyandanch students — called scholars at the Freedom School — after the 2013 summer program ended. Last December the scholars were invited back to a holiday party on campus, and in the spring a group of 10 Stony Brook students, led by Robbins’ wife, Roni, a retired Coram Elementary School principal who has been a volunteer with the Stony Brook Freedom Schools program since its beginning, traveled to the Wyandanch school district for an after-school mentoring program with the scholars.
“We heard from the parents and the school districts that the kids are sitting down and reading books and doing things they never did before, so we believe we’re really having an impact,” said Charles Robbins. “The kids wanted to stay after school for the mentoring program, and they wanted to come back to Freedom School, so I really believe the parents and kids are benefiting.”
Commemorating 1964’s Freedom Summer
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, which made it a special year for the program. In the summer of 1964, dozens of Freedom Schools opened in the churches, on the back porches and under the trees in many small towns in Mississippi. The students’ average age was 15. Their teachers were volunteers — many of whom were college students who traveled to Mississippi to protest educational inequality and teach literacy. The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program today is based on the Freedom Schools held that summer during the Civil Rights Movement.
Stony Brook EOP/AIM Director Cheryl Hamilton, who co-directs the CDF Freedom Schools program on campus, said that to acknowledge this anniversary, some of the books in this summer’s curriculum were about that Freedom Summer. “There was also an annual National Day of Social Action,” said Hamilton, “and as part of that we talked with the parents about civic engagement and the importance of being registered to vote. Some of our servant leader interns [the Stony Brook students who mentor the scholars] went with us to the parent meetings to conduct voter registration. It’s all part of the Freedom Summer model.”
Commemorating the Freedom Summer was only one part of this year’s program; the scholars also participated in a wide range of activities designed to educate, inspire and delight them.
Daniel M. Davis, professor and chair of the Department of Geosciences, brought two telescopes to Tabler to give the scholars the opportunity to observe the sky; representatives from Brookhaven National Laboratory conducted a week of science experiments with the fourth-graders; Amy Sullivan, director of the Center for Dance, Movement and Somatic Learning at Stony Brook, taught a week of dance; and Lauren Kaushansky, a lecturer in the Professional Education Program in the Department of History, involved the scholars in a three-week theater project.
Wolfie, a popular Freedom School guest last summer, paid a visit, as did Men’s Basketball Head Coach Steve Pikiell and his team. Also participating was a host of guest readers, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Congressman Tim Bishop and Senator Flanagan, as well as Stony Brook School of Social Welfare Dean Frances L. Brisbane, Senior Vice President for Administration Barbara Chernow, Football Head Coach Chuck Priore, and of course, President Stanley.
President Stanley read Just Because I Am: A Child’s Book of Affirmations, by Lauren Murphy Payne. After he finished, he cheerfully answered any questions the scholars posed and then had an inspirational message of his own for the impressionable fourth-graders:
“Someday you’re going to college. Absolutely, absolutely, you are,” he told them. “And you’re going to have the opportunity to learn and discover a lot of things about yourself, and then you’ll be ready to go out and get a good job, something you really want to do. So college helps people achieve their dreams. College is the best pathway to having a successful life.”
Plans are under way to keep the same cohort of students connected to Stony Brook over the coming school year and to invite them — as fifth-graders — back to Stony Brook’s Freedom School next summer.
— By Patricia Sarica
Watch scenes from Stony Brook’s 2013 Freedom School.