After he finishes reading a book, Jabari Ford looks down to see seven eager faces staring back at him.
The Dallas Morning News reports the 18-year-old Southern Methodist University sophomore didn’t ever envision himself in the role of an instructor. But here he is, in a classroom at the Dallas Independent School District’s Pease Elementary in east Oak Cliff, with a group of young boys sitting — and squirming — on a rug in front of him as he reads.
It’s a life-changing experience.
“I’ve developed a passion for these kids that I’ve never had before,” he said.
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Ford is one of a handful of college students and recent graduates teaching at Pease’s Freedom School, part of a national program launched by the Children’s Defense Fund. The six-week program is centered on reading, using literacy to drive self-empowerment and community engagement. It’s the first of its kind in Dallas.
“Our goal is not to teach kids to read — that’s not what we do,” program director Vernessa Gipson said. “Our goal is to try to get them motivated to want to read. What we do more, we do better.
“We tell them a library card, a passport and the ability to read will take you anywhere in the world.”
Targeting communities of color, the program is patterned after efforts that civil rights organizations took in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
At Pease, all of the 40 students — kindergartners to fifth-graders — are from the neighborhood, and all are black. So are the college-aged instructors — called “servant leaders” in Freedom School lingo.
“Black kids need to see college-age students that look like them up in front, reading them books that tell their stories, with characters that look like them, that give them a sense of their history and tell them: ‘I can be smart. I am smart. I can go places,’” Gipson said.
Ford, a Mansfield Lake Ridge graduate, is studying mechanical engineering at SMU, with hopes to work in the automotive industry. His fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, supports Freedom Schools across the country, and the local chapter used its funds to pay for Ford’s classroom expenses.
“Those kids see a guy who looks like them, who thinks this is cool; he likes books, he likes math, he wants to design cars one day,” Ford said. “Now, I’ve got kids saying they want to design cars and robots and that kind of stuff.
“I can share with them some of my experiences that they’ve never dreamed of or thought about — and show them that they can achieve it, too, because I look like them.”
After reading “Getting Through Thursday” — about a boy who’s disappointed that his mother can’t afford a promised party for making the honor roll, because his report card came a day before payday — Ford asked the boys to draw pictures from the key moments in the book.
He then split them into groups, to play-act the final pages when the party takes place.
“I need my best actors for this,” Jabari told his group. “We need to see who’s going to have the most lit celebration.”
“Oh, I’m good at this,” said one of the boys, with a big smile.
The Freedom School is just one of a wide array of options DISD families have this summer.
Crystal Rentz, the district’s director of summer learning and extended day services, said DISD will hold 500 programs at its campuses this summer.
Nearly half of those, 246, are enrichment programs, giving students new avenues to explore while reinforcing learning from the previous school year.
Summer learning loss is one of the district’s big challenges; research has shown that students can lose anywhere between one to three months of reading and math skills over the summer, and those losses are cumulative. Without the resources for summer camps and family vacations, many low-income students are more susceptible to learning loss. DISD’s student body is nearly 90 percent low-income.
The Freedom School concept was a perfect fit, Rentz said.
“When you see a program like this, where they are bringing the community in, I think we are making a lasting impression,” Rentz said.
A part-time trainer at Dallas’ Momentous Institute, with a decade-long relationship with running Freedom Schools in Illinois, Gipson said that while trying to narrow achievement gaps is important for her “scholars,” it isn’t the sole focus.
New experiences — seeing a play, learning chess, playing African drums, eating a kiwi or slicing a whole pineapple — will open those children’s eyes and spark their passions, she said.
“When our kids go back to school, and get to write that essay on what they did over summer vacation, they now have something new to write,” Gipson said.