Illinois schools and nonprofits will have access to millions of dollars in Freedom Schools funding.
The state recently announced a $17 million grant to build the nation’s first publicly funded network of Liberty Schools. The schools date back to the 1960s when volunteers traveled to Mississippi to teach black students how to read and write, as well as classes on constitutional rights and African American history.
Schools today are summer and after-school enrichment programs that complement public education with programs rich in cultural appreciation and integrated reading to improve literacy skills.
“We know that over the years Freedom Schools have provided the extra support our children need and with the significant loss of academics in the classroom I have found it very important to ensure that African-American children have the opportunity to receive more civic engagement. and leadership mentorship and just learning about African American history,” said State Senator Kimberly Lightford, who championed the legislation for the grant.
The Phillip Jackson Freedom School Grant is part of the state’s Education and Workforce Equity Act, which was signed into law last March. According to the requirements set by the Illinois State Board of Education, grant recipients must host at least one six-week summer program and/or one program during the school year that provides extracurricular learning opportunities.
Children’s Defense Fund, a non-profit organization founded by Marian Wright Edelman, currently has a network of 152 Freedom Schools nationwide. Two are in Illinois. The state grant is intended to support existing freedom schools and to establish new ones.
“I was extremely excited and trying to figure out how we could get our hands on some of this money so we could expand our reach,” said Cessily Thomas, a teacher at Centennial High School in Champaign and project director. for Champaign Freedom School, one of the Children’s Defense Fund sites. “Currently we serve 50 children, so with something like this we will have the capacity to do a lot more.”
Freedom schools must also implement strategies that focus on racial justice and equity, transparency and building trust, civic engagement, and literacy. The Springfield Urban League, which is also part of the Children’s Defense Fund, hosts a Freedom School each summer, serving approximately 150 students. Leaders say the program is effective and they see literacy skills improving by testing students weekly.
“It’s a proven model. That works. We stopped learning about the shortcomings that occurred over the summer. We provide a healthy and culturally aware environment for students,” said Ashley Moore, project director of the Springfield Urban League Freedom School program.
The people who direct the curricula of today’s freedom schools are called “servant leaders” and tend to be college-aged students. It is part of the program’s mission to provide youth in the community with employment opportunities. The state plans to take the same steps by requiring funding recipients to have teachers from the local community and preferably young people of color.
The grant is named after Phillip Jackson, education advocate and founder of The Black Star project in Chicago. Jackson died in 2018.
“Phillip Jackson was an incredible man who loved children, loved raising little black boys,” Lightford said. “He was just a stellar, reliable, committed and diligent man when it came to improving educational 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 named it after my brother,” Smith said. “It’s very exciting for us. I don’t know what we’ll do or what role we’ll play, but I’m just grateful for this honor.
The organization currently runs a Saturday educational program called “Kimberly Lightford Saturday University”, named after Lightford. Students in grades five through eight receive instruction in reading, writing, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Public schools, universities, community colleges, nonprofits, and community organizations can apply for the funding by April 29.