Love at First Chant

March 24, 2016

Emanual Andrews

Maria Estrada remembers having to argue with her two daughters when it came to reading. They would complain and get attitudes when she or their father would try to get them to pick up a book.

So when Maria heard about the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools®, a summer enrichment program aimed at getting kids to enjoy reading, she thought it was perfect for her girls. In the summer of 2013, she drove down to Hellen Keller Elementary School in Lynwood – one of the 33 sites across the state hosting CDF Freedom Schools – and signed them up.

The thought of going to a reading program did not sound like fun to Christina, who was 12, and the then 7-year-old Iliana. In fact, like many others, they were reluctant and felt the activities they did first thing every morning were a bit corny. These morning activities are done during Harambee, which means “let’s pull together” in Swahili.” Harambee is like a pep rally and involves lots of singing, dancing, and chanting to celebrate and affirm every CDF Freedom School participant.

“At first you can see the kids looking around embarrassed, trying to see whose watching them,” said Juan Carlo Lugo, the coordinator at the Helen Keller Elementary site. “But then they get into it and have fun.”

It only took a couple of days for Iliana and Christina to fall in love with the program. In fact, both girls say Harambee is their favorite part. As for reading, that took a while longer; and for Christina, the love is still developing. But, she admits, the program has helped her tremendously.

Christina said she always struggled with reading and hated when she had to read in front of others. In CDF Freedom Schools, students are in a classroom with about 10 other scholars and a teacher. Every day, students sit in a circle and take turns reading a book together. This process helped Christina overcome her fear of reading aloud and improved her reading skills.

Now in high school, Christina did not participate this year but she did volunteer. On one recent afternoon, she assisted a teacher in a first grade class.

“I had to read to them,” she said. “And it actually felt good. Now I know I can read to other people.”

Over the past three years, a more radical change has happened with Iliana. Maria says Iliana is a much better reader than her sister was at her age, and she now enjoys reading.

Crystal Leon, who has been Iliana’s teacher in the program for two summers, said the scholar’s attitude toward reading has changed completely. “During the first year she would complain every time we would have them read. Now, when we finish a book as a group, she will go and pick up the same book and read it again on her own.”

CDF Freedom Schools program provides an integrated reading curriculum which includes carefully chosen developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant books. The books are about people who look like them and with similar backgrounds.

When asked what she loves about reading, Iliana responds simply: the books.

“I like that we learn about our history and stuff,” she added.