Toledo’s Freedom School Cultivates Children’s Love for Books

Freedom School Scholars take a field trip to the Toledo Mud Hens to enjoy some baseball.

Each summer, students in grades 5-12 have the opportunity to improve their reading skills through free enriching activities and reading classes at the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center’s Freedom School. 

Freedom school’s origins

The Children’s Defense Fund sponsors Freedom School programs throughout the country, and its history dates back to the struggle for Black citizens to secure justice and voting rights. 

The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 was created to fill in the educational gaps in Mississippi’s public school curriculum for Black youth. 

During this program, college student volunteers guided students in subjects including mathematics, reading, writing, science and humanities. Students were also taught Black history and constitutional rights, areas of history that were left out of Mississippi’s public school curriculum. 

In 1995, the first two official CDF Freedom School sites were opened in Bennettsville, SC and Kansas City, MO.

Now, over 150,000 children have experienced CDF Freedom School in over 182 programs throughout the nation. 

According to data from 2021, 81 percent of CDF Freedom School scholars avoided summer reading loss and 87 percent of parents saw increased confidence in their scholars. 

The local history 

The Monroe Street Neighborhood Center’s Freedom School began in the summer of 2017. 

The idea to start a Freedom school was sparked by the late Gloria Layson, an advocate for children’s literacy. 

A team tried to start the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center’s Freedom School in 2017, but they failed to raise the $70,000 required to begin the program. 

With the help of Rev. Rae Lynn Schleif, retired assistant to the Maumee Watershed District superintendent, they were able to raise the required funds.

Layson, unfortunately, passed away before the opening of the Freedom school. Neighborhood Center Executive Director Clara Petty said she wished Layson was able to see her idea become a reality.

The Monroe Street Neighborhood Center’s Impact 

During this six week program, scholars start their day with an integrated reading curriculum and spend the afternoon participating in fun activities including field trips.  

This year, the field trips consisted of the University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum which is the world’s largest collection of original artwork by children’s book illustrators, a Toledo Mud Hens game and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Through these field trips, students were able to elevate their education through hands-on experiences. Petty said the Mazza Museum was especially enriching for students. 

“As we share with children how important it is to read, it is also important to learn about how a book was developed, and that is what the Mazza Museum did for them. It was an excellent field trip for us,” Petty said. 

Since 2017, the program has grown significantly. There were 40 scholars enrolled in the first year of the program. This year, they had 53 scholars in addition to a waiting list. The waiting list was never let in because no one dropped out before the program started. 

“We have found that Freedom School is an opportunity for children to just pick up a book, not because you are told to read, but because you have developed a love for reading,” Petty said. 

Instructors lead scholars through six or seven books each summer and provide activities that help students comprehend what they are reading. 

Scholars are tested at the beginning of the program and at the end to see the impact the reading curriculum made on their education. 

Every morning Freedom School has a guest speaker. These speakers range in professions to show students what kinds of jobs are available in the community.  

Petty shared a story from a year when one of the guests read a book to the scholars, but did not finish it. This led to the scholar’s curiosity to grow and one of the students declared that they needed to finish the story and wanted the book. 

When Petty heard this, she told the project director to find out how many scholars wanted the book and she would pay for it. 

The project director posted this on her Facebook page, the author saw it and generously sent them the book and its sequel. 

This story perfectly illustrates the dedication of the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center’s Freedom School. To learn more about getting your children involved, visit the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center’s Freedom School website.

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