PATERSON, NJ - The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School is holding its second session this summer under the direction of the Rev. Kenneth D.R. Clayton, senior pastor of the St. Luke Baptist Church.
The program, geared towards children ages 5-13, quickly filled to capacity when registration began back in April. After all 50 spots were filled, folks tried to enroll after that were put on a waiting list.
Clayton said he is optimistic that the maximum capacity will be well beyond 50 next year. The program keeps students engaged from 8am until 3pm, just like a regular school day.
The major difference between a regular academic setting and the Freedom School is an early morning activity called Harambee. Clayton describes Harambee as a “30 minute group affirming celebration that is very high energy.”
There’s a reading curriculum of primary book, but students still have the opportunity to read other books they have selected, Clayton said.
The school’s budget is about $55,000, Clayton said. The main expenses are books, school supplies, school trips, and staff salaries, he said.
Clayton said raising money for school was challenging, but he said he had plenty of backing from “local vendors with the church, citizens in the community, and local politicians.”
Staff members are called “servant leaders,” who typically are college students or recent college graduates looking to “ignite students to be world leaders,” Clayton said.
All servant leaders undergo a week of training in Knoxville, Tn., Clayton said. The 2010 staff members, he said, were “highly intelligent, motivated young people.” Five of them are returning this year, while five others are new.
Among last year’s success stories was nine-year-old Robert Hickmon. Clayton said the boy was “very shy and sheltered, and had academic struggles” when he began the program last year.
But Freedom School Site Coordinator Latoya Gaines said the staff quickly “took a special interest and everybody knew him.” Gaines also said that Hickmon began to lead Harambee on a regular basis, while Clayton added that the young student quickly “became alert and attentive” throughout the day.
Gaines indicated that seeing Robert sing, laugh, and make new friends was really rewarding for the staff members, given how introverted he was on the first day. She also said that she thoroughly enjoyed “seeing the kids transform from beginning to end,” as all the students showed progress.
Clayton hand picked Gaines to be the staff coordinator in 2011 after she worked as a servant leader last year. The staff coordinator manages the current staff that teaches the curriculum, “making sure supplies and meals are in, and just that all activities in general are running smoothly.”
Gaines, 24, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Montclair State University, as well as a Master’s degree from Seton Hall University in the same field. She is also currently working on her Education Specialist degree in School Psychology, which she plans to complete in December of 2012.