Church finds niche with summer Freedom School


LONG BEACH, Calif. — A school day that begins with students singing the Hallelujah Chorus and time set aside for prayer is hard to beat. But it is just the beginning of good things to come for children going into kindergarten through eighth grade who enroll in the Freedom School, a five-week summer program run by a Long Beach, Calif. church.

Registration begins this month for the summer program that runs from July 23 through Aug. 24. The North Long Beach Community Prayer Center is running the school for the third consecutive year. The summer program is built on a model developed by the Children's Defense Fund and run by people of faith who ensure a Christian imprint on the curriculum.

"The freedom school is basically a reading enrichment program." said the Rev. Leon Wood, pastor of the North Long Beach Community Prayer Center. "It touches the spiritual, cultural, academic and everything."

Wood and his wife started the church in 2000. They learned about the Freedom School several years ago when their daughter taught at one located in Philadelphia, while a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We present a Christian view—we don't play with that," Wood said of the Freedom School his congregation helps facilitate. "It is an extension of the church ministry."

In addition to his pastoral duties Wood serves as director of the Ronald McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program at Claremont Graduate University. He retired as dean of the School of Business and Technology at Long Beach City College in 1995 and over the years has worked with a number of groups as an advocate for the poor.

"When I went into the ministry my whole focus was in social justice and outreach—the poor has been a focus," Wood said. "My major concern has been the development of young people."

The Freedom School model was one that had room for the pastor's passion and allowed churches to serve as a sponsoring organization. It is built on the values of literacy, service and advocacy.

The Long Beach City School District has partnered in the effort by providing use of school sites for the summer program—free of charge.

A different approach
This year the church plans to operate the Freedom School at two different locations. Each site would accommodate 50 to 60 students.

"It is a whole different way of looking at school," said Paula Wood, director of the Freedom School and Rev. Woods' wife. "It is open wide in terms of what you can do. It is flexible, yet fun and exciting," she said of the program. "It works—It really does!"

A favorite Freedom School activity is time each day with a "community reader," when a local professional reads to students from a favorite piece of literature and explains why it is personally meaningful. It is followed by a Q-and-A session about the community reader's vocation and career path.

Paula Wood recruits local college students to be teachers for the Freedom School and sends them for a week of training at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tenn. The student/teacher ratio is 5 to 1 and includes classroom aides that are trained locally.

"They must be Christians," PaulaWood said of the teacher recruits.

Church members volunteer time and help with snacks and Friday field trips, Paula Wood explained.

"They consider this (the Freedom School) their baby," she said.

Peace of mind
In addition to literacy training and cultural enrichment activities, the school provides a free breakfast and lunch for students every day. It is no surprise that the summer program is a big hit with parents.

"For me it gave me that secure feeling he was going to be OK where he was," said Theresa Stotler, whose fourth-grade son attended the Freedom School last summer.

A transportation manager for a trucking company, Stotler said she wished she had known about the program earlier because she liked the values it reinforced for her son and the exposure to religious faith that it offered.

"He is already asking me if he can go again this summer," she said.

Ava Archie sent four of her seven daughters, ages 9 to 13, to the Freedom School the past two summers and plans to send them again this year.

"I like the format they have set up for learning," Archie said. "The teachers are so engaged with the kids. They want to inspire them to rise above the hindrances in the culture and focus on things that are going to build character."

The mother of seven praised the broad range of cultural exposure that is built into the school's daily activities.

"I love that the Freedom School gave them a safe environment to be exposed to the differences of other people," she said.

Personal involvement
The cost of running the Monday-through-Friday program from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for five weeks totals $87,000. Several years ago the Woods formed a non-profit entity called Success in Challenges, to raise money for the Freedom School.

There is no cost to families whose children attend. But there is an expectation for them to be involved. Parents are encouraged to attend one or more parent meetings during the school session where issues of learning are discussed.

"We want to get parents involved in the education of their children," Leon Wood said.

The Long Beach Freedom School is one of three programs in California that is franchised by the Children's Defense Fund. Students in the program reflect the diversity of the Long Beach community and come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

"This was started from the civil rights era to help people to learn to read so they could vote," Leon Wood said of the history behind the Freedom School. "It is much broader now."

The Children's Defense Fund, began in 1973 as an advocacy organization to help needy children. It is a private, nonprofit organization supported by foundation and corporate grants and individual donations.  It does not take government funds. The Freedom School is one of several initiatives the organization has championed.

For Pastor Wood the summer program is one way for the church to invest in the surrounding community. The dividends it pays, one child at a time, are beyond measure.

"We want to remind students that school can be fun," Leon Wood said. "We want do develop a thirst for learning."

For Freedom School registration information contact Paula Wood at (562) 225-4667. For more information on Freedom Schools visit the Web Site and click on the programs link.

Published, April 2007