A Promising First Summer at Knoxville's Freedom School

At the unlikely hour of 8:30 on a Monday morning, the Tribe One building on Magnolia Avenue is quaking to its sturdy foundations, shaken by wave after wave of human voices in the gleeful throes of full-throttle expression, rocked by the mad assaults of dozens of dancing, stomping feet. Freedom School is now in session, and Freedom School, it would seem, is truly freeing, beginning as it does with Harambee. According to Tribe One co-founder and City Councilman Chris Woodhull, Harambee is a Ki Swahili word that means "all pull together"; here, it translates to a morning session of singing, dancing, chanting, cheering, rapping, a sort of organized chaos that seems to put the excess energies of the Freedom School age group—grades 3 through 8—to wise use.

"At that age, they need an outlet," says Woodhull. "We let them go; we just direct it a little bit."

But after 30 minutes of singing, chanting, recognitions, and shout-outs, the scholars (students) and servant leaders (teachers) of Freedom School come to the day's first recognition of what Freedom School is all about—guest and City Councilman Dan Brown will read The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens, by Mychal Wynn. What will follow is three more hours of reading, possibly followed up by a field trip, interspersed with food and more fun.

The reading-intensive Freedom School curriculum is a product of the Children's Defense Fund, founded in 1990 by activist Marian Wright Edelman to break the cradle-to-prison pipeline in underprivileged areas. Communities interested in hosting their own Freedom Schools must apply to CDF, but must also seek outside funding sources, as CDF provides training, but no seed money.

According to Woodhull, he and Tribe One co-founder Danny Mayfield (a former city councilman who died in 2001) envisioned trying to bring the program to Knoxville as early as 1991, when early discussions about Freedom School were held at the Alex Haley Farm.

It took time, but Woodhull says that with Edelman's close friendship with Knoxville poet Nikki Giovanni, and with a CDF training program eventually moving to the Haley farm, the time finally came for Knoxville's application.

"Marian Edelman was clear that she eventually wanted a successful program in Knoxville," Woodhull says. A longtime community organizer known both for his staunch activism and for his genial way—no mean feat—Woodhull waxes philosophical when he talks about programs like this.

"This is like old-school activism, like Stephen Biko in South Africa and the Harlem Children's Zone," he says, his pale eyes open wide. "And by that I mean it's more in the vein of getting people to become co-creators of their own program. It goes back to Jesus and Buddha; it's about looking at poor people as a resource rather than a burden."

With grants from Project Grad, Mercy Partners, the city, and other sources, Tribe One opened the doors on Knoxville's first Freedom School the third week of June. The five-week program hosts around 50 kids from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, serving breakfast, a snack, and lunch. (One of the program's secondary emphases is on healthy food choices.) There is no charge, though the scholars—all of whom came from either Sarah Moore Greene Elementary or Vine Middle schools—and their parents had to fill out applications and interview with Freedom School Project Director Stephanie Hill.

Even more rigorously screened were the seven servant leaders, young, mostly college-age men and women who serve as teachers and Harambee leaders. Woodhull said those interviewed "were asked a whole lot of direct, challenging questions. We even gave them a piece of curriculum to see if they were willing to do some bit of extroverted teaching on the spot.

"Working with young people is at the stress level of probably being an air traffic controller. CDF really stresses finding the right people."

They found people like Kula Addy, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee in psychology and pre-dentistry. Also a dancer, Addy had worked with youth before, and chose to apply for servant leader after working with Tribe One Assistant Director Stephanie Davis at Knoxville's Project Grad.

"Outreach has always been a part of who I am," Addy says, her hair a braided wreath framing a sunny smile. "My mother instilled that in us to be part of our community."

She laughs when someone notes the almost comical scope of her interests. "I've always said I wanted to be the dancing dentist," she says. "But what I'd really like one day is to have my own dental practice for underserved youth. I want to make a difference, whether it's to see children with proper dental care, or to see them well-rounded in the arts."

Servant leader Chris Hill, on the other hand, saw his career plans drastically altered by his involvement in Freedom School. A servant leader since '07, when he worked at a school at a Washington, D.C., detention center, the Delaware native (brother of the aforementioned Stephanie Hill) went into the program as a undergraduate in marketing and took an "extreme detour."

"A detour from the corporate world into education, into community work, into public service," he says. "I'm glad that it happened. Without a shadow of a doubt, it opened my eyes to a path I hadn't put much thought toward. What ended up happening is I worked for a nonprofit full-time, which I never envisioned before.

"Now, long-term, I'd like to start my own nonprofit. The challenge between now and then is to figure out what the focus is going to be."

Maybe the most striking thing about the Freedom School is way the students seem to drink in the integrated reading curriculum that follows Harambee. Scholars break off into seven reading groups, one for each servant leader, with each group having been given a book for round-robin reading according to skill level.

Not that the groups are a total snooze; there's still an occasional chant, a cheer, a rap, to keep everyone's head in the game. Everyone takes turns reading, and the groups stop frequently to discuss what's been read, making for a more interactive, less mind-numbing experience.

The books, too, have been chosen for relevance, and to pique the students' interest. On this day in Addy's group, the chosen book is Joseph, about a boy whose beloved father is at war in the Middle East, leaving him in the care of his alcoholic/addict mother. Addy looks at themes, central conflicts, and turning points in each chapter, but ultimately she lets the scholars make the final observations. Her favorite question: "What do you think about this?"

And this is a group that doesn't do well at sitting on its hands; the scholars are just as forthcoming with answers as they are with raps and cheers. Says Woodhull, shaking his head in wonderment, "They stay in there in morning groups for three hours for a reading curriculum."

Afternoon field trips make the school a more rounded experience; regular visits to the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, Beardsley Farm, maybe even a visit to the YMCA swimming pool. But books are the meat of the program.

Woodhull is hopeful the Freedom School will be continued now that the city has had a successful first year; funding is the only real question, and he says the prospects for next year look better. "There are already applications for grants that we didn't get this year, that we stand a better chance of getting now," he says. "We also have some help from some competent grant writers at UT. It helps, too, with the CDF being very pleased by how things are going."

It's hard to read kids, sometimes; they say things they don't always mean, or they do things just to go along with the crowd. But the scholars here at Freedom School seem about as close to genuinely enthusiastic as you're liable to see out of a group of 8- to 14-year-olds gathered for the purpose of a summer reading program, and when the quiet, unassuming little Javon Clark, an upcoming sixth-grader at Vine Middle, tells you that "[the program] makes you want to read… I love it," you almost believe him.

And when he tells you in his sweet-natured voice, with just a hint of a smile, "Yes. I would definitely do it again next year," you can't help but think that it has been a very successful first summer at Knoxville's Freedom School, indeed.