How Freedom Schools Use Resources of Oppressed Students, Parents, and Communities

A half century ago, Civil Rights activists established summer Freedom Schools for Black people in Mississippi, as part of an effort to ensure that they could pass literacy tests and register to vote.
Photo of Nancy AresThe tradition continues at Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools operating at dozens of sites across the United States. Nancy Ares, associate professor of teaching and curriculum at the Warner School, is researching how the North East Area Development, Inc. (NEAD) summer Freedom School in Rochester helps African American and Latino students and their community recognize and leverage the "cultural capital" they have in order to overcome racial and economic barriers. Specifically, she's interested in how these forms of capital are constructed and how they are circulated, in the form of community-based standards and goals for learning.
Cultural capital refers to any non-financial social asset that promotes the social mobility of a group or individual, despite limited economic means. Examples can include linguistic, aspirational, navigational, and familial capital developed over time as communities cultivate ways of surviving in oppressive conditions.
For example, when parents from low-income neighborhoods advocate for advanced placement classes for their children, they may encounter negative assumptions within a school system about the ability of their children to excel in these classes.
"So there's a resistance capital that develops, often by having relationships with other people in the community who have done this," Ares noted. "They help each other learn how to not take no for an answer and to navigate the bureaucracy."
The curriculum of the Freedom Schools stresses multicultural literature; improved writing, reading and thinking skills; and lessons in the history of African-Americans or Latinos in America. Many Freedom School sites have helped reverse the summer reading loss that often occurs over the summer, Ares said.
The students also participate in afternoon social action projects in their communities to help build an awareness of the sources of social oppression, and also to build a sense of agency as well as community and cultural pride.
The Freedom School classes are taught by college students or recent graduates. As part of her project, Ares has asked these student teachers, called servant leader interns, to describe the standards they set for themselves, and the standards they believe are expected of them by parents and students.
The responses were "remarkably consistent," Ares said. "What comes across very clearly is that loving children as they are, as Black children or Latino children, helps prepare them for living in a society that still has endemic racism, in ways that help keep them safe and build and maintain their sense of self worth." This kind of love is called armed love.
Ares, who has studied teaching and learning in high schools, says there's an important difference between the Freedom Schools that the students attend in summer, and the public schools they attend the rest of the year: a stronger sense of connection and responsiveness to the communities and cultures that the students come from.
The NEAD Freedom School, for example, is "definitely not punitive. It's all about positive development," Ares said. "It has as its base an acknowledgement of the particular experiences and resources of communities under pressure, and treating culture and community as essential, positive parts of learning and teaching."
The failure to do so in most public schools, she noted, shows up, for example, in disciplinary policies that establish certain, mostly White middle class norms for behavior that may not match up with the communication or interaction styles of young people from communities of color—resulting in an "overrepresentation" of those students being suspended.
"Raising children to understand their history, to be proud of who they are, to be able to advocate for themselves and see themselves as part of a community working to improve itself, is the sort of community knowledge building and care of youth that is becoming more and more important as schools have more and more trouble educating everybody," Ares noted.
(Featured in the November 6, 2015 issue of Research Connections)
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Tags: cultural capital, Freedom School, Nancy Ares, NEAD, racial and economic barriers, research