The Equity & Justice Institute hosts students at its Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® site.
If you were to walk into the Tenzing multipurpose room at 8:30 a.m. this week, you’d see a group of young students laughing, singing and cheering for each other as part of the Freedom School’s daily practice of Harambee, a Swahili word meaning “all pull together.” This feeling of synergy directly ties in to the mission of The Freedom School, a literacy program that Crossroads first hosted in 2020, when the School was designated as a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School® site. As part of a three-year commitment, Crossroads’ Equity & Justice Institute welcomes students from the Pico neighborhood to the 21st Street Campus each summer. Students participate in a six-week reading program that provides a dynamic and engaging literacy curriculum targeting summer learning loss. Additionally, the program aims to help the young students, who are known as the program's scholars, build confidence socially and emotionally.
During Harambee, scholars listen to announcements, practice daily meditation, sing empowering songs, recognize instructors and fellow scholars for their achievements and enjoy special guest read-alouds featuring books with diverse identities and stories. Diverse stories are an intentional theme in the curriculum, giving the students the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the characters they read about.
Freedom School teachers—recruited from Santa Monica College and known as student leader interns—participate in a three-day national training to learn about the program’s progressive model and integrated reading approach. They are encouraged to select and incorporate a thought-provoking class novel or chapter book into their curriculum, so scholars can learn to annotate with greater depth and purpose. Crossroads Freedom School’s Executive Director Ayana Peters, who is a Crossroads’ fourth grade teacher and has taught both middle and high school, stressed the importance of teaching annotation with depth and purpose. "It is a skill that is not always taught, but always expected the further students move in education." Rising seventh grader Sara shared, "Before, during regular school, it was hard to take notes. Teachers just told us to take notes but never taught us how. At Freedom School, Ms. J'adore really taught us how to take notes and that helped me a lot."
Collaborative weekly team meetings and daily one-hour planning sessions are incorporated into the instructors’ teaching schedules, giving them time to develop rich academic projects that foster the students’ sense of inquiry and personal connection. Fifth grade teacher Marlon Turcios shared, "A lot of the growth I see is specifically in writing. Students have gained confidence. They take some of the shared ideas from our class discussions and incorporate them into their individual writing pieces. They now realize that writing is a constant process of revising, reflecting and rethinking until the final product is finished."
“I definitely see a growth in confidence,” echoed student leader intern Jerikka Thomas. “Some of the students were really struggling with connecting with others and feeling like they could reach out and make friends, and now they’re coming out [of their shells]. A lot of them struggled with speaking out in class at the very beginning. Now, they’re really open, raising their hand and always wanting to share their ideas and their writing.”
The mission of the program, offered free to participating families, deeply resonated with Alana Cotwright ’20, a Crossroads graduate who is currently studying film and African American studies at Wesleyan University. As an intern in the program, she assists with the daily Harambee read-alouds, helps students in the classroom and provides mentorship during one-on-one reading sessions. For her, the greatest reward has been “knowing that I’m helping kids [who don’t attend Crossroads] get better at their schooling. There are a lot of privileged people at Crossroads. Even if they’re not privileged in a monetary way, they are educationally. So, it’s knowing that I’m having an impact outside of the traditional spaces I’ve been in.”
Crossroads community members and Upper School students have served as tutors and taught options classes such as ceramics, dance and basketball. In the classroom, student leader interns facilitate project-based learning where scholars can learn in creative and hands-on ways. The six-week program will culminate in a self-directed research project that students can present in any format of their choosing. The academic curriculum is enhanced with field trips that include museum visits, dolphin watching and a trip to a local family farm.
The impact of the program is evident in both the joy that students bring to their academics and in the self-esteem they gain. Rising second grader Honor shared that his favorite book is Ashley’s Franklin “Not Quite Snow White,” about an African American girl who faces criticism for wanting to play the fairy tale princess. He appreciates the ultimate message of the book: “It’s OK to be yourself.”