Schools and nonprofits across Illinois will be getting access to millions of dollars in funding for Freedom Schools.
The state recently announced a $17 million grant to build the first state-funded network of Freedom Schools in the country. The schools date back to the 1960s when volunteers traveled to Mississippi to teach Black students how to read and write, along with lessons on constitutional rights and African American history.
Today’s schools are summer and after-school enrichment programs that supplement public schooling with curriculums rich in cultural appreciation and integrated reading to improve literacy skills.
“We know that through the years, Freedom Schools have provided that additional supplemental support that our children need and with the significant loss of academia in the classroom, I found it very important to ensure that African American children had an opportunity to receive more civic engagement and leadership mentorship and just learning of African American history,” said State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who championed legislation for the grant.
The Phillip Jackson Freedom School Grant is part of the state’s Education and Workforce Equity Act, which was enacted last March. According to requirements laid out by the Illinois State Board of Education, grant recipients must operate at least a six-week summer program and/or a program during the school year that provides out-of-school learning opportunities.
Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit started by Marian Wright Edelman, currently has a network of 152 freedom schools nationwide. Two are in Illinois. The state’s grant aims to support the existing freedom schools and create more.
“I was extremely excited and trying to figure out how we could get our hands on some of this money so that we can expand our reach,” said Cessily Thomas, a teacher at Centennial High School in Champaign and project director for Champaign Freedom School, one of Children Defense Fund’s sites. “Currently we serve 50 children, and so with something like this, we will have the capacity to do so much more.”
Freedom Schools are also expected to implement strategies that focus on racial justice and equity, transparency and building trusting relationships, civic engagement, and literacy. The Springfield Urban League which is also part of the Children’s Defense Fund holds a freedom school every summer, serving about 150 students. Leaders say the program is effective and they see literacy skills improve by testing students weekly.
“It's a proven model. It works. We stopped learning gaps that happened over the summer. We’re providing a healthy, culturally aware environment for the students,” said Ashley Moore, project director of the Springfield Urban League’s Freedom School program.
The people leading the curriculums at current Freedom Schools are called “servant leaders”, and tend to be college-aged students. It’s part of the program’s mission to provide youth in the community with job opportunities. The state plans to take the same steps by requiring recipients of funding to have teachers who are from the local community and preferably young people of color.
The grant is named after Phillip Jackson, an advocate for education and founder of The Black Star Project in Chicago. Jackson passed away in 2018.
“Phillip Jackson was an amazing man who loved children, loved to educate small Black boys,” said Lightford. “He was just a stellar, dependable, committed, diligent man as it related to improving academic outcomes for Black children.”
Gloria Smith, Jackson’s brother and executive director of The Black Star Project, says she hopes to work with the state on building the future Freedom School network, and also expand the work within The Black Star Project.
“I was just shocked that she had named this after my brother,” said Smith.” “This is very exciting for us. I'm not sure what we'll be doing or what role we’ll play, but just grateful for the honor.”
The organization currently holds a Saturday educational program called “Kimberly Lightford Saturday University”, named after Lightford. Fifth to eighth grade students receive lessons in reading, writing, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Public schools, universities, community colleges, nonprofits and community-based organizations can apply for the funding between now and April 29.