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Freedom Schools Help Create a Pool of Black Teachers for Philly and Beyond


Inside Promise Harvey’s North Philadelphia classroom, the children sat delighted on a recent Tuesday listening Jabari Jumpsa book about an anxious boy to tackle his first jump from a high diving board.

It was both a literacy lesson and a chance for third graders to talk about what it means to be nervous and brave. But the class was also part of an effort to build a pipeline of black teachers — a growing focus in education as districts better understand the importance of a diverse education force to student achievement and well-being. students while facing a national teacher shortage.

Research shows that a diverse teaching body benefits all students, especially black children, in terms of academic achievement, college attendance, and positive racial identity.

READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s teacher shortage is now a ‘crisis’. Here’s how the state plans to bring in thousands of educators by 2025.

Harvey, a West Philadelphia native, studies English at George Washington University, is one of 12 youngsters working at the Mastery Prep Elementary-based Freedom Schools Literacy Academy, and 142 others distributed among Freedom Schools in Philadelphia, Camden and Detroit.

Freedom Schools, run as summer programs, are a training ground for teachers of color, high school students and college students exploring the idea of ​​education as a career.

University students — conscripts Servant Leader Apprentices – teach kindergarten through second grade; secondary school students, called junior department heads, assist in classrooms. All are supervised by certified teachers. Youth are recruited through year-round outreach – webinars, social media and other programs.

» READ MORE: Teachers wanted: Dwindling number of future educators has experts fear teacher shortages will only get worse

Freedom schools are not a new concept. The movement officially began in 1964, when civil rights activists in Mississippi organized to counter the poor public education offered to black children and their parents, teaching lessons in reading, rights and embracing black identities.

Philadelphia has had various incarnations of Freedom Schools, but the current model has been operating since 2019 by the Center for Black Educator Developmentfounded by Sharif El-Mekki. This summer, 241 students are enrolled in the three partner cities and online, funded through a combination of money from the Philadelphia School District, the Mastery Charter Network and private funders. All children are welcome, but the program is built, El-Mekki said, “with the love and success of black children in mind.”

“Welcome scholars!” a sign in a Freedom School classroom reads. “Black kids can do anything!”

Growing up, Harvey felt called to education. She lined up her toys in an imaginary classroom where she was the teacher, even though she wondered if a career earning more money was a better way. Ultimately, Freedom Schools cemented its commitment to working in the classrooms: It’s not just about a job, it’s about social justice.

“I wanted to be in a school like the schools I grew up in and teach kids who are like me,” Harvey said, 21, who attended a private Christian school and a charter high school. “It’s hard to find good teachers.”

El-Mekki called the work “hope in action”.

“We’re really building community, but it’s not about lining up and waiting for leadership,” El-Mekki said. “No, you are a leader now. You don’t have to pay your dues. You are an expert in your lived experience and you demonstrate this when leading a class. »

The Center for Black Educator Development is advancing the cause on several fronts: It raised $1.25 million for the Future Black Teachers of Excellence Fund, an ongoing campaign to support the black teacher pipeline locally and nationally. High school students who commit to majoring in education or a related field and teach for five years will benefit from scholarships, mentoring and coaching and, once in the field, retention bonuses.

READ MORE: Philadelphia’s Freedom Schools, Designed for Black Kids, Tackle Literacy and Love

El-Mekki hopes the teacher fund will operate in 15 regions over the next decade. But for the next few weeks, his work is narrowly focused on freedom schools.

Courtney Daye, who attends North Carolina A&T State University, didn’t start out wanting to work in a classroom — she’s a psychology major — but she’s back for her fourth summer at Freedom Schools, and she admits, ” Now I ask myself, do I want to be a teacher?

Everyone at their Freedom School at Mastery Prep knows that when it comes time for the Harambee “I Love Being Black” chant — the gleefully infectious opening ceremony that kicks off every day — it’s Daye’s turn to lead. . (“I love the color of my skin because that’s the skin I am in! I love the texture of my hair, and I can wear it everywhere!” shout children and teachers.)

“It’s so awesome, just kids enjoying being black while they’re young,” Daye, 20, said. “I didn’t experience that. I had a whole phase where I thought I didn’t like my black skin.

READ MORE: There are fewer black teachers in Philadelphia today than 20 years ago, report says

Although identity formation is part of the job, the main focus is literacy and data shows freedom schools help students improve in reading. At Mastery Prep on Tuesday, students spoke words, ran through a spelling bee, read, and discussed books they would like to include in classroom libraries.

During the school year, Trent Petty is a second-grade teacher at Mastery Prep; this summer he is the site manager for the Freedom School there. If you had asked Petty in high school if he wanted to be a teacher, “I would have said, ‘Are you crazy?’ It was not at all in my eyes. Male teachers weren’t a thing,” said Petty, a Pittsburgh native.

But after finding out in college that he didn’t really enjoy the engineering courses he signed up for, Petty found his way into teaching. The motto “education for liberation” of the Freedom Schools resonates in him.

“I feel like I’m leading part of the revolution in debunking black stereotypes,” Petty said. “Whether it’s an inch, a mile, a step or a jump, we’re letting kids know there’s more to black people than what you see on TV. There are people you know – your teachers, your principal – who do other things.

We know the lack of teachers has strained so many schools this year, but we wanted to understand why it was happening, if it was getting worse, and how it could be helped. If you are a teacher, student, parent or administrator who has a story to tell about how the teacher shortage has affected you or your school, please contact Education Editor Cathy Rubin at [email protected] or editor Kristen Graham at [email protected].