South LA Freedom School students make mark with art

Joyous cheering, rhythmic clapping and motivational chants welcomed Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas as he kicked off a colorful mural-painting activity to brighten up the construction underway at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital.

More than 200 energetic children and teenagers dipped paint brushes into vibrant hues to fill murals with words such as “aspire,” “create,” “believe,” and most appropriately, “read.”

imageThe young student artists were chosen from Freedom Schools in the Second District of Los Angeles. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ office, which provides partial funding for the six-week summer literacy program, partnered with the Department of Public Works and City Year Los Angeles for the mural activity. The murals will be displayed in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center until construction ends in 2013, when they will be moved to a permanent location.

“This is an opportunity to contribute to the quality of life in this community, ” Ridley-Thomas told a room filled with lively youth who routinely broke out into call-and-response cheering. “We have doctors in the house, we have school administrators in the house, we have scholars in the house, and the house is packed.”

imageChanting and cheering is an integral part of the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® curriculum. Each morning begins with the Swahili tradition of harambee, which includes a guest reader, motivational singing, call-and-response cheering, affirmations and a meditational moment of silence before the day’s activities begin. Guest readers are community professionals from a wide range of careers, and they tell students how reading and literacy is relevant to their field of work.

“The main thing we want them to know is that reading is fun and that they can connect all of these rich activities to that,” said Yolanda Robinson, site coordinator for the program at First New Christian Fellowship. “We try to stay away from traditional sports and activities so they leave having had new experiences.”

Many students enter the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program with little to no interest in reading. After a summer of connecting literature to unfamiliar activities like croquet, badminton and Zumba dance aerobics, many change their minds.

“I didn’t like reading before, but when I got here it was a whole different story,” said 9-year-old Damon Fuery, who eagerly described his favorite book this summer: a Kid Caramel Private Investigator novel about a werewolf impostor. “I love mystery books because they’re kind of like a puzzle to solve.”

imageChildren’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® are hosted at four sites within Ridley-Thomas’s district: First New Christian Fellowship, Bethel A.M.E. Church, Community Coalition at Foshay Learning Center and First Church of God in Inglewood.

The Freedom Schools program is based on the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, a college student-driven campaign that erected Freedom Schools and Freedom Houses that helped African Americans register to vote and expand their literacy through engagement with the arts. The current iteration of the program under the Children’s Defense Fund began in 1992 and operates in 84 cities nationwide.

“We don’t believe that there are any bad apples in our school,” said Aaron Burleson, site coordinator for the Community Coalition chapter of the program. He noted that the Freedom School philosophy of never expelling a student from the program due to behavioral difficulties separates it from traditional public schools. “Everyone’s a scholar, and we hold them to that standard.”

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