West County gets first Freedom School

West County gets first Freedom School
California Superintendent of Public Schools Tony Thurmond, a Richmond resident, served as a guest reader at the new West County Freedom School on Thursday, June 20, 2019.

They danced, sang, chanted and read. They were free.

This summer, West County is welcoming its very first Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School.

Fifty local children — 20 percent of whom are homeless — are enrolled in the ground-breaking summer literacy program sponsored by Open Door United Methodist Church in Richmond.

On Thursday, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond served as a guest reader at the new summer program.

Operated at Nystrom Elementary, the program aims to provide a safe, nutritious and fun learning environment that ensures young children whose families can’t afford camps and tutors don’t fall behind when they return to school in fall.

With only 31 percent of third graders in the West Contra Costa Unified School District reading at grade level, Open Door decided it wanted to do something to help students in need, said Joanna Pace, executive director of West County Freedom School.

The idea to establish a Freedom School came after Open Door members attended a conference and heard Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, a national nonprofit focusing on child advocacy and research.

“[Edelman] said one of the best ways to disrupt the cradle to prison pipeline is to sponsor a Freedom School to help give kids creative, active, word-rich activities in the summer to prevent summer learning loss,” Pace said.

The Children’s Defense Fund accepted Open Doors as a sponsor in December, which began a bid to raise funds for curriculum, teacher training, books and more. The Freedom School was among 24 organizations to receive funding from the Chevron Environmental and Community Investment Agreement (ECIA) grant program.

The organization is continually fundraising so that families can count on the program every summer. Donations to the program can be made by clicking here.

Seven teachers in the program are local students attending college who serve as mentors for the children. The college students were sent to an intensive training program at Alex Haley’s farm (author of Roots) in Clinton, Tenn., where the Langston Hughes Library is located.

“They came back here and hit the ground running,” Pace said.

Every day, the kids shake it all out through dance and chants during a morning assembly, followed by a reading from a guest speaker.

Following a short commute to Nystrom from home at about 9 a.m. Thursday morning, Thurmond, a former social worker, Richmond councilmember and WCCUSD board member, read from a book, danced and sang along with the children. He’s no stranger to the program, having worked at a Freedom School before.

Students start off the day with breakfast at the West County Freedom School on Thursday, June 20, 2019.

“In some places it’s helped boost reading by an entire grade level in a six week period,” Thurmond said. “It’s an evidence-based program that really supports kids’ love for reading and helps students get closer to reading on a grade level. And it’s a fun program.”

Thurmond has been advocating for summer and after-school learning programs for years. A $500,000 Department of Education grant was just released this summer to fund programs similar to the Freedom School in California, Thurmond said. A statewide literacy initiative was launched by the DOE to make literacy a priority, he added.

Thurmond said it was a joy being able to stop and support a school program in his community.

“I’m a parent of students in this district. I live in this community,” he said. “It’s always an honor to be at home and work with our kids in the district.”

Students dance and sing at the West County Freedom School on Thursday, June 20, 2019.