Students learn love of reading through Freedom School

Freedom School graduate-turned-counselor Desiree Horlbeck reads a book to students during their morning meeting, call a harambee. (Provided)

Although school’s been out for a few weeks, 100 North Charleston youngsters are spending their summer days in classrooms.

The students, kindergarten through eighth-graders, are part of Metanoia’s Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School. Since 2006, the school has helped hundreds of students avoid the “learning slip” that many students — Freedom School calls them “Scholars”— experience during summer break.

Research suggests that students from low-income communities can lose as much as one-third of the academic progress gained during the school year, project director Stacy Brown said.

It is a free six-week summer camp environment for low-income students that focuses on reading and how students can make a difference in themselves, their families, their communities, their country and their world. Each week has a different theme.

Desiree Horlbeck, a rising junior at the University of South Carolina, knows the value of the program. She started attending during elementary school as a camper and now is a counselor.

“I was always someone who loved reading, so I always loved more access to books,” she said. Now, as a counselor, “I see it as a chance to give back. I’m doing the same thing that someone did for me when I was a child.”

Freedom School is not a remedial reading program but instead focuses on the students’ strengths and abilities, said Metanoia CEO Bill Stanfield. For three hours each morning, the students read an age-appropriate book together and do reading-related activities under the leadership of their counselors. The students get to keep the books, which reflect their heritage, culture and images.

Some of the students are pulled from the groups to work one-on-one with a certified teacher. This year, Metanoia partnered with Charleston Promise Network, which provided funding that, in part, paid for certified teachers to work with the program,

Support is also provided by Family Services Inc., the InterTech Foundation, the Henry & Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, Boeing SC and Blackbaud.

Each afternoon is filled with enrichment activities like cooking classes and karate or fun field trips to places like the water park or the beach. They also do a social action project about halfway through the program.

Freedom Schools were originally part of a nationwide effort to organize African-Americans to achieve social, political and economic equality in the United States during the civil rights movement.

They were reborn under the leadership of Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund, and in 1995, the first two official CDF Freedom Schools sites opened their doors, serving children in Bennettsville and Kansas City, Missouri.

The Metanoia program has been around for a decade. This year, the school was named in honor of local librarian Cynthia Graham Hurd, one of the nine victims of last summer’s shooting at Emanuel AME Church. Hurd’s brother, Malcolm Graham, who has been involved with the Freedom Schools in Charlotte, was the guest reader on June 22 and spoke about his sister’s legacy and love of books.

“Emanuel happened the first week of Freedom School last year,” said Stanfield. “We have some kids who go to Emanuel and others who have relatives that go there. So when Emanuel happened, we talked about it and decided the best thing we could do would be keep going.”