High Energy 'Alternative Learning' at the Freedom School

Local second and third graders get a focus on reading at the Duke/Children's Defense Fund school 

Students and teachers start the day off by pulling together in Harambee.  Photo by Jonathan Alexander.
Students and teachers start the day off by pulling together in Harambee. Photo by Jonathan Alexander.

The learning at the Duke University/Children's Defense Fund Freedom School begins every morning with Harambee.  So does the fun.

Harambee is Swahili for "lets pull together" and the 90 second and third grade students at the Freedom School start their day off by filling the first floor of Duke's Old Chemistry Building with their singing, dancing, chanting and screaming. It's a time for students to recognize each other for their accomplishments. And an important part of Harambee is a visitor -- often a local community leader -- who reads to them.

"It's our time to all get on the same page and it's about being very energetic," said on-site coordinator Alison LaGarry. "We also have a moment of silence and recognition. It's intentionally designed to be a roller coaster."

All that energy makes the morning session popular among the students Wilmur Ventura, 7, said the most fun thing about the school is singing during Harambee.  Nikea Rodgers, 8, added that she likes the cheers and chants they do.

Andy Smith, assistant site coordinator, added "It's like a classic high school pep rally, but there is a lot of learning involved."

This past Monday, Neil Clay, principal of Forest View Elementary School, visited the school during the morning to read to the students. After the book was read the students and interns chanted, "Hey Mr. Clay you're a real cool cat. You have a lot of this and a lot of that. Strut your stuff, strut your stuff, strut your stuff."

The students asked the principal questions like What's your favorite sport? Favorite instrument? Favorite color? Favorite pet?

"That's the time that we let our scholars know that their voices matter," Smith said. "Sometimes it's related to the book, sometimes it's not."

"Arts and music and movement have a huge role in the way that students learn," LaGarry said.

Harambee is designed to wake students up in the morning and encourage reading, a goal Freedom Schools around the country have strived for nearly five decades. The first Freedom School was established in Mississippi as part of a Freedom Summer civil rights project, which promoted literacy among African American adults.

The Children's Defense Fund, a national non-profit organization, developed the Freedom Schools model for students who are at risk of losing academic ground during the summer 18 years ago. There are now more than 180 Freedom Schools around the country, serving more than 11,000 students of different races in 24 states.   The program is in its third year at Duke and is a program of Duke's Office of Durham and Regional Affairs.

These students have aspirations to be doctors, lawyers, athletes and librarians.

Wilmur and Nikea said they wanted to be karate instructors and teachers.

"I like to learn and work here," Wilmur said. "I like going outside to learn arts."

Nikea echoed Wilmur's sentiments.

"I like doing the creative stuff, like making books," Nikea said.

Smith said he does this for the kids. He said it's important that the students stay engaged in learning.

"I definitely think that it's really important to give the kids a place to be during the summer where they can get that experience so that they don't lose their gains over the summer that they've made during the school year," Smith said.