Program inspires love of reading

July 13, 2013

By Courtenay Edelhart
Staff writer 

Eighty children sat cross-legged at a Freedom School presentation while a guest read an Aesop's fable about a contest between the sun and the wind.

The two argued about who was more powerful and decided to settle the dispute with a challenge. Which one could force a man to remove his coat?

The wind blew and blew, but the stronger its gusts, the more tightly the man clung to his coat.

As the storyteller spoke, counselor Tracy Davis, a 24-year-old Bakersfield College student, acted out the plot, strutting across a stage with bravado as the forces of nature quarreled, then hunkering down and pretending to blow across the stage when the wind roared.

The children chuckled at his antics, and their eyes gleamed when the sun won the contest by gently increasing the heat until the man removed his coat on his own.

Bringing stories to life this way helped make a book lover out of Kaili Brambila, 10, who didn't much care for reading before she enrolled in Freedom School.

But now, "I like books," she said. "I like the stories. It's kind of fun and inspiring once you read them."

Freedom School is a six-week summer literacy program of the Children's Defense Fund aimed at boosting reading skills among disadvantaged youth. The program offers curriculum at community sites nationwide designed to increase literacy and self-esteem. Children read 30 books over the course of the program, and they get to keep the books at the end.

Locally, Freedom School is administered by the nonprofit advocacy group LightWave Education and hosted by Central Church of Christ in south Bakersfield.

Participation is free to children ages 6 to 13. Children's Defense Fund provides the books and Lightwave holds fundraisers all year to pay for the staff, which consists of eight counselors (all college students) and some administrators.

Lisa Elzy Watson is president of Lightwave's board and executive director of the Freedom School.

She first opened a school in Los Angeles, but the former English teacher decided to add one in Bakersfield three years ago after she was startled by standardized test scores in the area.

"I thought, 'We can do better than this,'" Elzy Watson said.

The program has grown every year since its June 2011 launch. There were 54 children the first year, 67 last year and this summer there are 80, with 20 more who were placed on a waiting list.

That's both a blessing and a curse, Elzy Watson said, because as enrollment grows, so does the need for funding and staff. The ratio is one counselor for every 10 children to make sure each student has sufficient tutoring help.

"We're very underfunded and we always need volunteers," said Lightwave social media coordinator Katie White.

By design, about 60 percent of the participants are selected from disadvantaged and underserved communities, and the remainder are from the general population.

"A lot of these kids don't have books at home," White said.

Parents are expected to volunteer at least an hour a week. A lot of them chaperone the program's weekly field trips. On Fridays, a bus takes them to local attractions such as the ice skating rink or to a farm to learn about food production.

Sessions are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and every day begins with what the program calls Harambee, a series of cheers and chants that are all about loving to read, respect for others and feeling good about yourself.

Harambee is a Swahili word that means "working together for a common purpose."

On Friday morning a counselor shouted, "How y'all feeling?"

The children roared in unison, "Fantastic! Terrific! Hurray all day!"

The guest reader of the day was introduced with a call and response cheer highlighted by a counselor shouting, "Say 'R-E-A-D Aloud!'"

That was Shirley Wallace's cue to start her storybook. A counselor at the Tehachapi state prison, she volunteered to read to the children Friday because her great nieces are at Freedom School and she admires what the program has done for them.

"It's a positive environment that increases their learning and wanting to read, and they have fun," she said. "It shows them that they're not limited in what they can do and has really boosted their self-esteem." JoAnna Maleno, 30, has two children in the program.

"I just want them to love reading," she said. "And it's working. They love it here. Love it, love it."

Paris Henderson, 10, said if it weren't for Freedom School he'd be sitting at home bored all summer. Instead, he said, "I get to read a lot and go places."

Jamarr Thompson, 6, couldn't say enough about Freedom School. "It's fun!" he said, bouncing up and down. "I like my class and my teacher and the school and my friends and the whole city!"

Oh, and his favorite book is "The Little Red Hen." Why?

"Because she's red," he said in an isn't-it-obvious tone of voice.