Erika Asikoye, who grew up in New Jersey, is the Director of the Freedom School Literacy Academy (FSLA) at The Center for Black Educator Development in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The FSLA, for the third consecutive summer, is running an African-centered program for Black and Brown children about to enter first, second, and third grade in three site; one of those sites is in Camden at Molina Lower Elementary School, part of the Mastery Charter Schools network. There, 48 youngsters (along with 98 in two sites in Philadelphia and others across the country working remotely) spend five weeks with master Black educators, college students, and high school students developing their literacy skills and building pride in their racial identities.
How does this work? In what ways does this 2021 version of Freedom School harken back to its origin 60 years ago in Mississippi? Finally and most importantly, how are the children?
I spoke with Erika to learn more. Here is our interview.
Erika, can you tell me what led you to leading an educational program that is attracting national attention?
I grew up in New Jersey and went to public schools all my life. I didn’t have a clear intention to go into education but, as an undergraduate at Howard University, a friend suggested I’d be a good fit for a summer program coordinated by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) called the Black Community Crusade for Children initiative. I went to San Francisco, ended up in one of CDF’s Freedom schools, and was just hooked!
What hooked you?
It was a double hook: first, feeling connected to a larger vision fusing academic growth with cultural pride, and, second, becoming passionate about the plight of young Black people. These days we call this “social justice.” I continued to work with CDF and found my way to Philadelphia where I ran an afterschool program for the Friends Neighborhood Guild, a veteran CDF Freedom School site. I joined the school district of Philadelphia as founding coordinator of Philadelphia Freedom Schools and that led me to FSLA.
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the Freedom School movement?
Freedom Schools have been around for a long time. In Mississippi, during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, there was great awareness that the education for Black children was so inferior to white children. The state didn’t even have a mandatory education law! Charles Cobb, a founder of the original Freedom Schools, asked, “how do we increase the literacy rates among people who have been disempowered and disenfranchised for so long?” The answer was to build self-confidence and self-esteem through history and reading.
That’s where Marion Edelman came in, who founded the Children’s Defense Fund. She partnered with churches and ran national trainings to increase a love for reading among Black students, using Black authors and Black characters with a weekly theme of, “I can make a difference.” Her focus was on self-esteem, positive racial identity, and, also, how children feel about literacy.
Sharif El-Mekki, the CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, was a natural fit for this sort of pedagogy, right?
Yes, with the addition of an important element: Sharif is hyper-focused on the Black teacher pipeline. He is passionate about changing literacy outcomes for young Black children through phonemic awareness and the science of literacy, and the foundation of raising outcomes must be more Black teachers. After all, when Black children have one Black teacher by third grade, they’re 13% more likely to enroll in college. With two Black teachers, that percentage jumps to 32%. And for low-income Black boys, their on-time high school graduation leaps to 40%.
And, of course, before Sharif founded the Center, he was principal of Mastery Charter Schools’ Shoemaker campus in Philadelphia, where one of Philadelphia’s four Freedom Schools is located.
If having Black teachers is so important, how can we have more? Right now only 7% of American teachers are Black.
Sharif’s theory is all about entry points—they’re non-existent for young Black people. Our Freedom Schools Literacy Academy provides that entry point. We hire Black college and high school students to learn from master teachers who give them lots of coaching and professional development while they’re working with our children. Those college students may not be majoring in education, these high school students may not intend to become teachers, but all of a sudden they realize, “I’m really good at this. I am making a difference in children’s lives.”
Tell me more about how the Freedom Literacy Academy works.
We model ourselves on the premise that we all are in service to the community. In fact, we call our college students “Servant Leader Apprentices” and our high school students “Junior Servant Leaders.” When we start our training, we talk about Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, who were not leaders in title, but in their service to the community, just as we aspire to be of service along that same continuum. As Ella Baker said, “give people a light and they will find a way.” We make a deliberate effort to align with the original roots of Freedom Schools, although time has changed the context of how we do things. We must not just teach the children but also create a teacher pipeline. Look, in the 1960’s Black people were held back because they had to pass a literacy test to vote at the polls. Now they’re held back because there aren’t enough teachers who look like them. We’ve added this additional layer.
What does a typical day look like for children enrolled in the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy?
Their day starts with direct instruction in literacy and phonemic awareness using curricula curated by Friends on the Block. If you struggle to pronounce a word, that will impact your ability to read fluently and with comprehension. We have a leveled literacy program—once a child has mastered a step they move on to the next level. After a break and a snack we move on to project-based learning where we partner with Dr. Nell Duke and the University of Michigan. Throughout, all the books and materials we use feature Black characters and other materials where children recognize themselves and their families. It’s all about racial uplift. We know that it is possible to marry teaching and learning with positive racial and identity development so we look for materials that can do both.
The afternoons are for fun activities and field trips. This is summer, after all!
Do you measure the outcomes in literacy?
Yes, we assess our children before and after the five-week program, focusing on the goals we set for literacy growth and an increase in positive racial identity. We ask the children to demonstrate their word recognition and fluency and ask them, “Are you proud to be Black? Are you a good reader?” We are assessing their self-perceptions to get a sense of how they see themselves as readers, how they feel about their accomplishments in school, and how they feel about their racial identity. By the end of the summer, we’re seeing positive differences.
Do you have plans to expand?
We’d like to pilot an afterschool program during the school year and help other cities implement this model. We’re also thinking about students who age out of our program—we’d like to partner with like-minded, similarly-oriented organizations so our scholars can matriculate there and further the runway of support they receive. While the early years are so important—and while Sharif knows that so many kids check out mentally by third and fourth grade if they’re not making progress—the later grades are also important. Plus, we want to keep them thinking about becoming Junior Servant Leaders.
Also, in response to the pandemic, we started a remote program, a truncated version that lasts 90 minutes. Parents love it! They say, “I will put my child on a screen for 90 minutes given how much is at stake.” Currently, we have 105 students online all across the country.
Just as importantly, we are providing that entry point to the teacher pipeline for our Servant Leaders. Hopefully, some of them will become full-time teachers and become models for their own students. As Ella Baker said, “give them a light and they will find a way.”
(This first appeared in slightly different form at Education Post.)