At the beginning of the month, we at the Center for Black Educator Development wrapped up our third Freedom Schools Literacy Academy (“FSLA”). The five week program again focused on building literacy skills and instilling a positive racial identity. Some 200 first, second and third grade students participated this year, 144 of which were in person and dozens more joining remotely.
Our scholars were taught by 99 Black teacher apprentices in college and high school from all over the country– either aspiring teachers or Black youth exploring and considering what liberating education might mean by serving a younger generation. This year, FSLA applicants hailed from 33 states. That’s an encouraging indication of the number of young people driven by a shared commitment to not only teach Black children to read and write but also instill positive racial identity.
Some of our teacher apprentices, like high schooler Calb Newton from Baltimore, were inspired by their educator parents. Others, like Howard University student Nia Goodall were inspired by Black teachers in their own schooling, rare as they were, and the power of a positive Black role model that they provided. What unites them is a shared desire to support Black students and transform their educational experience beyond the typically inequitable, unjust reality that they face during the school year.
I am humbled by the work of our master teachers and teacher apprentices. We know the difference that Black educators can make: when Black children have one Black teacher by third grade, they’re 13% more likely to enroll in college. With two Black teachers, that percentage jumps to 32%. And for low-income Black boys, their on-time high school graduation leaps to 40%.
The impact of the FSLA extends well beyond improving just academic skills. We’re empowering young Black students with a positive and powerful identity. There is a thirst for this kind of education. Nearly every day during FSLA, I receive a message or text from parents saying that their children tell them essentially, “I don’t like school, but I love this Freedom School.”
The experience leaves us wondering why regular schools can’t be more like Freedom Schools. Why can’t schools embrace the transformative combination of culturally responsive teaching, a supportive and empowering learning environment, and the affirming experience of learning from a teacher that looks like and understands the lived experience of Black students?
In the end, for regular schools to be more like Freedom Schools, they’ll need to get more Black and Brown teachers into the classroom, work to become anti-racist institutions, and equip all teachers with the cultural competency to serve Black and Brown students.
That is the vital mix, these are the essential ingredients for overcoming the withering strain of educational injustice and systemic racism in our public schools. As we saw in this year’s FSLA, young Black people are ready to play their part. The outstanding question is, will those in positions of power in our public schools leverage their power to liberate Black children and build the anti-racist future all of our children deserve?
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.