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Churches Ring With Freedom Schools


Missouri’s United Methodists supported several Freedom Schools this summer, flipping what could have been a “summer slide” into a season of growth. 

The origins of Freedom Schools can be traced back to when African Americans were given the right to vote but had to pass a literacy test to qualify. Today it is about combating the “summer slide,” a term to describe how education levels for under-resourced children drop by a month-and-a-half to three months over the summer.

LifeWise has been conducting Freedom Schools for seven years. This year the program employed 28 college and high school students for the summer, paying $16 per hour. But, unfortunately, they couldn’t hire as many staff as they had hoped for the summer. 

“Our goal was to have 18 classes of 180 scholars, but we had to cut back to 140 due to staffing,” Scott Walker said.

LifeWise was running multiple Freedom Schools in the St. Louis area. LifeWise operated two schools on its campus and schools at Beloved UMC and The Connexion UMC, which received support from Salem UMC, in addition to the Freedom Schools at Webster Hills and LifeWise. 

LifeWise President and CEO Scott Walker explained that literacy is still a prevalent challenge. Before COVID-19, only 33% of summer school students in St. Louis schools read at grade level. After COVID-19, that number was down to 18%. 

“In our Freedom Schools, 89% of our scholars show no summer slide, and many show nine months of learning gain,” Walker said.

Webster Hills has worked a lot with LifeWise but has recently decided to hone its efforts to make a larger impact in one place. They decided to place their emphasis on kids, education and food. The Freedom School checks all those boxes. The Webster Hills school was for middle school students, most of whom were from the community. 

The church provided 12 volunteers in the area of parenting, 20 readers and 12 people for meal preparation. They had started with catered meals through LifeWise but, after a few weeks, decided to prepare their meals instead. 
Steve and Judy Larson are retired professors at Webster Hills who believe in the importance of reading and know how summer can be a time of decline in education, so they are both enthusiastic advocates for the Freedom School. In addition, they both volunteered to make breakfast at the church one day a week for the six-week program. 

“It’s fun to talk to the kids,” Judy said. “It’s also been great to see people in the church take on leadership roles to help with this.”

Volunteers did activities that included poetry, jazz music, science experiments and knitting. In addition, Fridays were field trip days. “Our main
goal was to build relationships,” Leslie said. 

The church dedicates its Christmas and Easter offering to the Freedom School, and it is supported by funds raised at their pumpkin patch and through individual donations. 

They had signed up to host 30 students, but that was scaled back to 20 due to staffing shortages at LifeWise.

One morning church member Perrin Marchionne read from the book Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. After the initial reading, the morning opened with Harambee, a time of music, rhythm, rhyme and motion, in which the students stand in a circle and do songs and dance that they take turns leading. The lyrics of the songs and poetry are based on affirmations of self-worth. 
“If I work hard at it, I’ll be where I want to be ... Some say we’re not good enough, but we know better ...”
“Rock to the freedom of a funky jam; Freedom School is where I am.”

Amanda Boyd was the site director at Webster Hills. She has worked with the Freedom School since she was a junior intern in 2004. 

“This is very near and dear to my heart,” she said. “The difference this school makes in the scholars by the end of the summer is amazing.” 

A few miles away at Maplewood UMC, the church ran a Freedom School for its second year for elementary-aged students. Three children who participated the previous year were back this year. 

“They have some amazing interns and student leaders, some of whom attended Freedom Schools themselves,” Rev. Kim Shirar said.

The children are invited back to the church for a movie night and Halloween. The church leadership was very receptive to hosting Freedom Schools despite its serious financial commitment. Shirar said that although the program is about education, not religion, it is still part of their calling. 

“There should be a lot more Freedom Schools,” she said. “Although it isn’t a church program, these children and staff are prayed for.” 

The Missouri Conference offers grant funds to kick-start your new, innovative, or one-time mission program or event. The ministry described above was awarded funds and went on to make change in its community. Learn more and apply by October 1 at