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Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Rontrell reads the book "Looking Like Me," during the Freedom School at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. The program, offered free to families, encourages stronger reading and writing skills among students in grades 5-8. Gordon is one of several United Methodist congregations across the United States hosting Freedom Schools this summer.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Teen volunteer Tra'Sean, right, encourages 6th-grader J.B. to explain his drawing at the Freedom School at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

United Methodist Deaconess M. Garlinda Burton is project director at the Nashville, Tenn., Freedom School. Freedom School invites adults from across the community to model good reading habits and esteem for self, family and community.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Kimiyah surprises herself by saying her chosen word loudly and with confidence during a vocabulary-building exercise at Freedom School at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

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Freedom rings for happy summer scholars

By Kathy L. Gilbert
July 29, 2014 NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

For six weeks in 96 cities, freedom’s ring sounded a lot like a school bell for young scholars who were happy — happy! — to be at school in the summertime.

Hard to believe? Seeing and hearing is believing.

Laughter spilled out of the old sanctuary at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church as excited children zoomed from one class to the next at Freedom School.

What’s not to love when they have teachers like Wil Taylor and Randy Taylor (no relation), who are asking them to put candy between their front teeth and repeat “red leather, yellow leather” as fast as they can for a lesson on the spoken word?

The two young men are members of Writers’ Block, a spoken-word group from Tennessee State University. Their lesson? Practice makes you a better speaker.

And, science is much more fun when the teacher brings in owl pellets (vomit) to pick through to find digested rat bones.

“First the kids didn’t want to touch the owl pellets, and then they were finding bones. It’s like, ‘Miss Garlinda, this is a rat’s foot. This is so cool.’ And I thought, this is wonderful,” said an equally radiant and happy M. Garlinda Burton, project director for Freedom School at Gordon Memorial.

Freedom School Slideshow

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Modeled after 1964 Freedom School

Funded by the Children’s Defense Fund, Freedom School is modeled after the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools held during the height of the civil rights struggle to link the importance of education and freedom.

Freedom Schools are in 29 states and 96 cities serving more than 11,500 children who come from the poorest ZIP codes in their areas. The schools help them learn to love to read and to value themselves as scholars.

“I love to read and Freedom School lets me read. And the teacher say I'm a good reader. I love that,” said Jonathan “J.B.” Sanford, 11, a scholar in the first-ever Freedom School held at Gordon.

College-age young adults are trained as servant leader interns and adults such as Burton, an ordained deaconess in The United Methodist Church, are trained as site coordinators and project directors to provide supervision and administrative oversight.

‘I love to read’

“What really drew me to the program was the emphasis on reading,” said Dorian Townsend, site coordinator at Gordon Memorial.

“I want them to leave saying ‘I love to read.’ I want them to leave telling their friends, telling their families about all these great books they’ve read,” she said. She also wants parents to read to their children and understand how important that is to their success in school.

The young scholars are getting that message and the servant leaders are learning to be mentors.

“I just want to show them a good role model, especially the females, to let them know that it’s possible for them to go to college, get a good education. And reading is fun. We have a time where we just drop everything and read,” said Tatyana Haddock, one of the servant leader interns at Gordon.

“I see success as the children going into their classroom during the school year and actually helping other students become better readers, better people in the community, helping out their family and ultimately helping out their community and then the world,” Haddock said.

Damani Covington, 14, who was encouraged in Freedom School to develop a petition opposing the death penalty, said, “I want to be a lawyer and some of our Read-Aloud guests were lawyers. It was exciting to see women already doing what I want to do. They were like role models.”

Nourishing hearts and bodies

Every morning starts with “Harambee!” a 30-minute singing, dancing celebration designed to affirm the value of each child. During the day, the children receive two meals and a healthy snack.

William Finley, 11, said, “My favorite part was the food and games, but my next favorite part was music and planning our ending show. We wrote some good songs.”

“The curriculum focuses on culturally inclusive imagery and culturally inclusive messages that speak to the hearts and the lives of the students, which in turn allows them to be excited about reading versus being detracted by it,” said Charles L. Chavis Jr., another servant leader at Gordon.

The Freedom Schools are offered at no cost to the child or parent.

“I believe that this Freedom School is going to push our community and our people here at Gordon Memorial, and folk that we are involved in and invest this time in, to be actors in the community around education and economics,” said the Rev. Vance P. Ross, senior pastor.

“It is my hope and prayer that after the summer ends we will have a Freedom School sort of ministry happening on Saturdays and maybe through the week. And then next year we’ll do the Freedom School again during the summer,” he said.

Challenging poverty and hunger

Burton sees Freedom Schools as an opportunity to get to the root causes of poverty and hunger.

“I think we can address the issues of a lack of affordable housing and healthcare because once you begin to see those people beyond your comfort zone as brothers and sisters in Christ, you can’t leave them hungry when you know their names, when you know their stories and when you see the love of God in their faces.”

She calls it “a Methodist thing.”

“That’s why I became United Methodist. … I stay Methodist because I believe that’s our theme. Our theme is bringing our faith into action.”

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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