Staphine Sykes, a reading interventionist, pinpointed exactly where she needs to help one of her students at a Fort Worth summer camp.
Henri Corpus, a rising fifth grader in Fort Worth ISD, reads slightly above his grade level, she said. The 10-year-old knows common, everyday words. He correctly pronounces words while reading aloud. Still, he has one big struggle.
“He’s a good reader. He just kind of whizzes through, but the comprehension part?” Sykes said, shaking her hand back and forth. “So that’s where we’ll start working.”
Henri is one of nearly 200 students attending AB Christian Learning Center’s literacy-focused Freedom School, a free summer camp at four locations primarily for Fort Worth ISD students who come from low-income families. The six-week program ensures reading skills don’t slip during the summer and prepares them for more improvements in the new school year, according to organizers.
Many of the students enrolled in Freedom School aren’t like Henri, said Loretta Burns, AB Christian executive director.
“A lot of them are really behind,” Burns said.
Burns and her team go into schools and find students who need the targeted intervention Freedom School provides at no cost. They primarily look for students in east and southeast Fort Worth, areas where most residents are Black or brown. Students are in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Why is it called Freedom School?
The Freedom School program has its origins in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Early Freedom Schools were aimed at keeping Black children safe and providing an educational experience they could not receive in public schools.
Black students especially struggle with literacy in Fort Worth ISD, according to district data. They are 27 percentage points behind white students in reading fluency, and were the only demographic in the district to slip back in other reading measures.
More than one in three third- to eighth-graders in Fort Worth ISD met grade level on the reading state standardized test in 2022, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Six in 10 students who live in Fort Worth, a city that has 12 school districts, did not meet grade level on the state reading test in 2022, according to parental advocacy group Parent Shield.
Michelle Wright, a literacy specialist, has spent the past four summers working with children in Freedom School. She has seen students become more confident, build up their self esteem and become leaders because of the literacy curriculum, which the Children’s Defense fund developed.
“If you can’t read, you can’t do anything in life,” Wright said. “Reading is fundamental.”
Structure, consistency helps reading
Inside the gym at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, Pete Geren, president and CEO of the nonprofit Sid W. Richardson Foundation, stopped and lowered the children’s book “Thank You Omu.” He had just read a sentence with the word “wafted.”
He leaned forward and, in a soft voice, asked the few dozen children in front of him, “Do you know what ‘wafted’ means?” The students shook their heads. Geren told the children they’ve experienced wafting before when they walk through their kitchen as their parents make dinner and smell the food cooking.
Hearing a guest read a book is one of the first activities of the day in Freedom School. Each day is structured so students receive a consistent focus on literacy.
“They need that because a lot of them don’t come from a background that is structured,” Burns said.
Mornings are focused on reading, while afternoons are for field trips or other enrichment activities.
Students eat breakfast then gather for Harambee, a Swahili word that means “all pull together.” Servant leader interns, who are Tarrant County residents in college, play music at 8:30 a.m. to tell students their day is starting.
After story time, students learn their word of the day and how it relates to them. Responsible was the word of the day on a recent Thursday, and their lessons focused around that word.
Students split into small groups and go to their classrooms, which are based on their reading skill level. They spend an hour drilling into reading and learning important life skills, such as conflict resolution.
In one classroom, students passed around the children’s book “The Remember Balloons,” a story about a grandfather teaching his grandson about his memory loss. Students were asked to guess what the story was about based on the cover.
“I think this man is going to be caring for his grandpa all day and caring for the dog with the grandpa,” one student said.
Inferring what a story may be through a simple exercise like looking at a book cover or guessing what may happen on the next page is part of how students build their reading comprehension, said Sykes.
“When they read it, either you’re doing a good inference on what you think or you’re not,” Sykes said. “A majority of the time, they’re doing real well at it.”
‘They knew all of their vowels’
Zion Johnson, a Tarrant County College education student who plans to become a teacher, taught children reading at kindergarten level at Freedom School in 2022. The children were, as she described them, “COVID babies,” and were only familiar with online school.
As a servant leader intern, she had to help point them in the right direction and get them on track.
“I had a lot of kids who couldn’t read, couldn’t write, couldn’t spell — didn’t even know what a D or B was or a Q from a P,” Johnson said.
The task was challenging.
Johnson started simple. She printed letters of the alphabet so students could trace them. Johnson built on the tracing activity, and taught students the sound each letter makes and how they combine to form words.
“By the end of the program, they knew all of their vowels and they knew the alphabet order,” Johnson said.
Johnson used a similar exercise when she was 10 and taught her 85-year-old grandfather how to read. They used the newspaper to read together. She helped him, and he helped her.
“That honestly is what made me want to do this. I can help people learn how to read. I can help people learn how to spell their names. I can help you understand those words,” said Johnson, who now leads Freedom School’s location at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.
‘Baby steps are still steps’
Burns, the AB Christian executive director, knows Freedom School is positively impacting students.
They receive an additional six weeks of learning, a strategy research shows can boost student performance.
Students are tested at the beginning and end of Freedom School. Internal data Burns has received shows some Freedom School students grow at least one grade level over the course of the six-week program, she said.
Wright, a literacy specialist, sees any progress as good for students. During the school year, she’s a teacher at Logan Elementary. She is entering her 11th year teaching.
Six weeks of learning makes a world of difference, especially in a city that wants to boost literacy rates, she said.
“Baby steps are still steps. They may not be as large as something else, but the elephant is big and we can only get it by eating little bits at a time,” Wright said.
How can you help your students?
Students’ learning often slips back during the summer. The phenomenon is called summer slide.
Avoiding the summer slide is a key factor to ensure your students are reading at grade level by the time they are in the third grade, said Sara Redington, the Miles Foundation’s chief philanthropy officer.
“Third grade literacy is a proxy for future learning and life success for a student,” Redington said.
With school starting in August, here are some resources to help ensure your students do not slide further back:
Editor’s note: This story was updated July 19, 2023, to clarify a statement Pete Geren said.
Disclosure: The Sid W. Richardson Foundation and the Miles Foundation have been financial supporters of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.