By Liz Ramos

Rox Cruz, Brian Farrow and five college students and recent graduates were busy Thursday putting the final touches on classrooms at Randolph College as they anxiously awaited the start of Lynchburg’s first Freedom School next week.

Cruz, the Freedom School’s site coordinator, said all 50 slots have been filled with rising sixth through ninth grade students.

“I am super excited for them to feel the atmosphere of a Freedom School. It’s a whole different culture than most summer programs or camps. Even though it’s really based in learning, there’s still a lot of social justice and different ways of teaching them versus the normal classroom setting,” Cruz said.

Freedom Schools originally grew out of the civil rights movement and were temporary alternative free schools for black students with a purpose of achieving social, political and economic equality. A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has been recreating the schools as summer programs to encourage literacy and student empowerment.

Several Lynchburg-area community members have been working with members of a local nonprofit, The Listening, since January of last year to bring the program to fruition. The Listening, which has a mission to “engage, change and save lives with the performing arts through community engagement and youth mentoring” is starting the six-week program.

Randolph College partnered with The Listening to host the program at on the college campus.Lynchburg’s Freedom School will be the second in the state, with the other located in Norfolk.

“It’s awesome and it’s overwhelming all at the same time because there is such a huge burden on us to make sure we are really hitting the points in this community that matter, but at the same time we’re all so excited for Freedom School to just start. It’s this nervous anticipation,” Cruz said.

Funding for the program is coming from community donations, private donors, grants and other sources.

Farrow, the program’s project director, said the Freedom School not only teaches students about the history of the civil rights movement and social justice, but about Lynchburg’s history as well.

“I think that the Freedom School will get the kids thinking about, ‘OK, we know about the history of civil rights and social justice from other places; what about here?’ That kind of gets the conversation going. What can we do as young people to bring an awareness about the history and make a change in our own community?” Farrow said.

A typical day at the Freedom School will start with breakfast and Harambee, which Cruz said is high-energy cheers and chants that will get the kids moving.

Afterward, students will go into the integrated reading curriculum, which will help them with reading, conflict resolution and social action. There also will be time for independent reading before lunch. Before dismissal at 3 p.m., they’ll have afternoon activities.

“It’s not just all classroom. It’s about moving around and letting the kids be themselves. It is summertime so we don’t want the kids saying they’re getting out of school to come to school. We want to make sure we make it fun for them and give them the mindset, ‘I want to come back the next day,’” Farrow said.

Lynchburg’s Freedom School has five servant leader interns who are in college or recent college graduates from the University of Virginia, Randolph College and Liberty University.

Dominique DeBose, who recently graduated from the University of Virginia, said she’s most excited to meet the students on Monday and lead the integrated reading curriculum because “that’s the time when getting to know each other happens and the learning and growing happens.”

Cruz, Farrow and the five interns attended training in Tennessee at the Children’s Defense Fund, the nonprofit that recreated the Freedom Schools, to prepare for the next six weeks.

Farrow said the five-day training made him aware of the lack of literacy and knowledge the Children’s Defense Fund has been trying to combat.

“It really inspired me and empowered me to want to come back to the community of Lynchburg and do more for our young people,” Farrow said.

DeBose said the training made her realize “the importance of what we’re doing, and it’s not just a summer job, and you’re a part of a movement.”

“That makes me really want to take myself seriously, but it’s also really fun that I can say that I’m doing something like this, being a part of something bigger than myself. It’s definitely exciting, and I’m nervous, but I’m able to do good work alongside other people,” DeBose said.

Throughout the program, community members will be volunteering to read to the students or help in other ways, which Farrow said will demonstrate the community’s diversity and introduce students to different cultures, mindsets and more.

“I think there’s so many times we only know the neighborhood around us and don’t necessarily know the full community. I wanted to really be able to expose our kids to people of influence, especially for this first summer,” Cruz said.

Cruz said the program also includes family empowerment dinners every Wednesday, during which the children and their families are invited to have dinner, and the program will provide resources to educate them on different topics like parenting skills and mental health.

Cruz said the program is still looking for more volunteers, and anyone interested can reach out to her by email at freedomrcruz@gmail.com.

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Liz Ramos covers K-12 education for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

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