The Power of Literacy

By Kevin Tankersley

Freedom Schools created to encourage reading

Dr. Lakia Scott is a tenure-track associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the School of Education at Baylor University, where she’s worked for five years. Her research interests include urban education and literacy, multicultural education and historically black colleges and universities. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Texas Southern University; her master’s at Prairie View A&M University; and her Ph.D. with an emphasis on urban education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Scott is also the executive director of Freedom Schools, a program designed to prevent summer learning loss in some students from the Waco Independent School District.

Scott and her husband, Chad, have two sons. Chadley is 5 and will soon be starting kindergarten, and Levyn is 7 months old. The Scott family lives in China Spring with their three dogs: Pugsley the pug, Bella the pit bull and Lola the chihuahua.

Scott took a break from her duties at Freedom Schools one afternoon to meet with Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley at her office in the Marrs McLean Science Building on the Baylor campus.

WACOAN: So tell me about Freedom Schools.

Scott: Freedom Schools is a summer literacy enrichment program that was originally started by the Children’s Defense Fund. They are kind of piggybacking off of what was considered the summer of freedom in Mississippi. Are you familiar with that?

WACOAN: I am not.

Scott: So the [Freedom Summer in 1964] was essentially a flight of students from the East Coast going down to Mississippi to help register black Southern voters or black Southerners.

To understand that importance, you have to think about the context of what was happening in Mississippi — Jim Crow laws, racial segregation. And voting, which was one of the most powerful ways to advocate for yourself, your family, your community, was restricted. People who became registered had to first take a test, and in order to take that test you had to be literate.

So these college students from the East Coast came down, and they started what was called Freedom Schools in churches and basements to help [African Americans] learn how to read but then also to help them pass that test so that they could become registered voters. In doing that, they realized the power of youth in that they were our future and, in generations, they could ultimately shape and impact the world. And so youngsters were also invited to participate in Freedom Schools.

There was a tragedy that struck a summer or two later after this initiative to go down to Mississippi to help mobilize communities. There were hangings involved. People were murdered, and it kind of stopped for a while.

In 1973, the Children’s Defense Fund was established by Marian Wright Edelman, and she’s important because she is the first African American woman to pass the bar in the state of Mississippi. She was also involved in the summer of freedom in the ’60s. She established an organization called the Children’s Defense Fund, and she worked to create laws to advocate for children who were coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the ’90s, she decided to reverberate what was historically known as the Freedom Schools into the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools, with the same goals of creating social action and awareness with the students but with a focus more specifically on promoting and motivating reading skills. So Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools really is birthed from this social action/civil engagement movement. But now we see it because we look at the schools of Mississippi from the ’60s and how there was overcrowding, misappropriation of funds, racial segregation, and a lot of those things are still happening today.

Freedom Schools is this third space, as we like to call it. It’s not home, it’s not school, but it’s a blending of the two. So the relationships, the nurturing, the ethic of care are incredibly important. But they also fall in line with the foundation of understanding reading is a key to freedom, and it is empowerment, and it is also the way you can make a difference in yourself, your family, your community, your world, and your country with hope, education and action.

WACOAN: This is the third year that Baylor has done Freedom Schools?

Scott: Yes.

WACOAN: And it’s grown every year, hasn’t it?

Scott: It has.

WACOAN: Fifty, and then —

Scott: And then 70.

WACOAN: And this year?

Scott: Well, 170 was our starting estimate of students to be enrolled. The first year we were at Cesar Chavez Middle School, and we were working with students that were entering grades 6 through 8, and we started with those 50. We experienced incredible success. About 94% of the students left the program not having any summer learning loss in reading.

Then last year we moved campuses. We began working specifically in Transformation Zone Waco schools. We worked at Indian Spring [Middle School] with about 70 kids, and of the students that finished the program, all of them did not experience any summer learning loss in literacy. So that was incredible. Some of them in the first and the second year increased their reading abilities by a year or two. And this is only a 30-day program.

This year, we’re working at J.H. Hines Elementary. We have about 120 spaces that we opened up for students. Then also at Indian Spring Middle School, where we’re reserving 50 student spaces. We’re hoping to have made an indelible impact on the students’ reading abilities.

WACOAN: You say ‘we.’ Who all is involved?

Scott: Partners. The city of Waco is involved. Of course, Waco ISD, specifically Transformation Zone Waco. We also are partnered with Prosper Waco, and we also have a partnership with The Cove.

This year, we’re piloting a program where Cove students — we have six students from The Cove who are working with us — essentially, they’re scholars in the morning, meaning they’re participants of the program. They read, they have reading obligations, they’re exposed to three different texts that day. And then in the afternoon they assist us with any afternoon activities we may have. We’re trying a few new things this year. I’m excited about it.

WACOAN: What is the Transformation Zone?

Scott: [There were] five schools who were scheduled to be shut down by the Texas Education Agency, and the superintendent at the time was able to establish an in-district charter for those five schools to remain with the district but be more autonomous in that they would have a separate boarding governance, and they would be able to try more innovative opportunities for resources. We’re working within those confines of those five schools, as an innovative approach to summer instruction.

WACOAN: In what I’ve read about Freedom Schools, the young people who are taking part are referred to as ‘scholars,’ not ‘students.’

Scott: Yes, not students.

WACOAN: Why is that?

Scott: That is a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School way of identifying the students because we feel that if we speak positivity into their lives and understand how important education is, they’ll also be empowered to enact those things inside of themselves and be motivated to continue on in their academic pursuits.

WACOAN: And what age scholars are involved?

Scott: Typically in Freedom Schools it’s K-12. So at the middle school, it’s the sixth through eighth grade students who are scholars. And at the elementary schools, kindergarten to fifth grade scholars.

WACOAN: And you said they’re introduced to three texts a day. What kind of reading are they doing?

Scott: The books are selected by a curriculum team by the Children’s Defense Fund, and these are texts that are culturally relevant and appropriate for the students. So I can just read off a few of the texts that they’re reading.

Kindergarten through second grade are considered Level 1 scholars. Third through fifth graders are considered Level 2 scholars. They read affirming books. ‘The Day You Begin’ [by Jacqueline Woodson] is about a multicultural community of students and how each of them brings something unique to the school experience. They’ve read ‘Suki’s Kimono’ [by Chieri Uegaki], ‘Children Around the World’ [by Donata Montanari], ‘Jalapeno Bagels’ [by Natasha Wing], ‘Just Us Women’ [by Jeannette Caines].

They read books that are culturally affirming, so they see themselves in the books, and they also, at the higher grade levels, they are broached with topics that they may be able to relate to. Not directly, in some cases, but they may have experiences with them. For example, last year some of our books dealt with bullying, suicide, depression, anxiety, handicapped or disabilities. And so the students, they gravitate towards a text, not because these are things that they’re not familiar with but because now they have a forum through the book to be able to have these discussions and/or be able to learn more about resources that are available to them.

It’s also important to note that these books are in some ways affirming for the students. They appreciate the fact that there’s a book that they’re going to talk about bullying and how the characters kind of try to figure out how to mitigate that situation or that conflict. Because oftentimes we stick to literary canons in school. We think of the books that have been taught for years and years and years, and there are so many books that come onto the scene every single year that feature characters that look like the students and have the similar experiences as students as well.

At the middle school level, they’re exposed to three books a day. Every morning, we have what’s called Harambee. It’s a Swahili term for ‘let’s pull together.’ During this time, it’s like a celebration. We sing the motivational song. We also have a guest reader. That guest reader comes in and reads a picture book or a book of poems or whatever they prefer to read to the students. And afterwards, the students can ask questions. There are some other elements of Harambee, but that’s their first exposure to the book.

The second time is during the integrated reading curriculum, which we do for about 2 1/2 hours each day. These are the books that I just mentioned. At the middle school level, they’re reading novel texts, so they read a book a week. And they get to take those books home to add to their personal libraries. At the elementary level, they read about three to five books a week, and the same goes where they get to take them home and add to their personal libraries. And the third time is spent in the classroom as well. They’re introduced to a book in the classroom library, and we call that DEAR time, which stands for Drop Everything and Read. So for about 15 minutes a day, they’re reading a book that they’ve selected. If they’re younger grade levels, the scholars will decide on a book that the teacher can read. They may take a vote, or the super scholar, which is a scholar who has demonstrated the most positivity or worked really hard to earn this title, will pick out the book and the teacher will read aloud.

WACOAN: I like that. Drop Everything and Read.

Scott: Yeah, DEAR time.

WACOAN: That’s good advice for everybody.

Scott: We try to embrace that concept. Staff will also Drop Everything and Read. We have phone calls and text messages, and we try to stick to, ‘I can’t talk right now because I have to Drop Everything and Read.’ It is a good model for life.

WACOAN: About how many staff do you have working?

Scott: For students, we have one staff member per 10 scholars. So at the middle school campus, we have five teaching staff, then we have two administrators. We have a site coordinator who is essentially like the principal, and then we may have an assistant project coordinator who handles logistics, attendance issues and things like that. At the elementary level, we have about 11 classes, and we have about four support staff, so about 15, maybe even 20 when we count the afternoon people.

WACOAN: Are these School of Education students who are doing that?

Scott: A good majority are School of Education students.

These School of Education students are, of course, studying to be teachers, and this is one of the reasons why I really felt strongly about bringing Freedom Schools to Waco was because typically Freedom Schools is not seen as a teacher education program or a teacher education model. However, [we do] robust training at a local and national level. We go to Tennessee for a week, and they learn about Freedom Schools. They learn about pedagogy, they learn about the different instructional strategies that they can use in a classroom, and they also get to meet some of these authors from the books. They get to speak with community activists and just be infused with all of this new information about how reading can be impactful for students.

These are preservice teachers that are typically in their junior- or senior-level year in the program. What we’ve found among the preservice teachers is that they feel more culturally competent in the classroom.

When you think about the national teaching demographic, 84% of the teachers in public schools are white females that speak only one language. And when we think about the student demographic, ever-increasing, ever-diverse in language difference and in social-cultural differences. So our teachers need to be dually equipped to handle classrooms that are very diverse, and Freedom Schools is one of the ways that they can do that, on top of giving this really dynamic library of books that they can use and kind of pick and choose from.

WACOAN: How do you pick your guest readers?

Scott: Our guest readers are essentially a pool of people who want to read. They volunteer. They mention throughout the school year they want to go to Freedom Schools, or it could be community partners. We’ve had parents, we’ve had janitors, we’ve had the mayor come, school principals, secretaries, social workers, anyone that has an interest in showing students how reading can be influential in their lives.

We also try to create this atmosphere where they see so many people, they know there’s a necessity in reading. Last week, we had Ryan Holt, who’s the chief of the Waco police department, come and read to students. His wife is a kindergarten teacher, and so this idea that it doesn’t matter what field or career you’re in, you need to be able to read, and reading is the key to success. And so our guest readers kind of embody that as well by their presence.

WACOAN: You taught in public schools before you came to Baylor. Where all did you teach?

Scott: I taught in Houston. I worked in an all-male, middle charter school for three years.

WACOAN: Oh, my!

Scott: [Laughs.] That’s my words. That is exactly how my three years were summed up: Oh, my!

WACOAN: How did you end up at an all-boys middle school?

Scott: My family lives off the Gulf Coast, and so I had family that were affected by [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita, and I was affected by Ike, and family again were affected by Harvey. So during that time I almost fell into teaching. My sister would tell me as a child that I would always have summer school with her and kind of mandate that she read books and do all those things. And she’d say, ‘You’d be a great teacher because you’re so bossy.’ That was what she told me for years.

My start was in journalism, so I was transitioning from special events. I did a lot of [public relations]-related events in the Houston community, special events like the Super Bowl and award shows and things like that. I wanted to do something that was more stable and also get into what I felt my greatest gift was to serve others and help prepare others.

So I applied for a teaching position, and I was alternatively certified. And it’s been magic ever since. It’s been incredible to say the least. I don’t know how I ended up at an all-male charter school as my first teaching experience, but I had tutored often in the community and with the school district, Houston ISD, and so I felt prepared. Of course, nothing can prepare you as a first-year teacher better than the experience itself.

WACOAN: I read that two of your degrees are from historically black universities. Why are HBCU’s still important?

Scott: I wrote a whole dissertation on that.

WACOAN: I know that.

Scott: [Laughs.] Why are they still important? I would argue that they’re more important now than ever before. Historically, HBCU’s were premised under this idea that black people were not permitted to go to these other institutions of higher education, and so there needed to be an alternative for them. However, now what we find in the data is that students of color are flocking to these institutions because they need to feel affirmed. They need to feel connected to their institution. And so at a time where we still experience racial segregation, discrimination and other issues of otherness, I would say that HBCUs or historically black or minority-serving institutions are more important than ever before. Because even though we have laws that premise that these issues should not occur, they still occur very frequently.

WACOAN: How did you make your way from teaching in public schools into higher education?

Scott: My parents, neither one of them attended college, and it’s important to know that both of them come from homes where they had a large family. I often joke about the fact that my parents, they moved intentionally to a better neighborhood because we know that where you go to school depends deeply on the neighborhood in which you reside. And so my parents worked really hard in their jobs in order to move us to another neighborhood. However, within the city, the schools that had the best opportunities and Advanced Placement courses were in the questionable schools. And so they worked so hard to give me a solid foundation in better schools, only for me to go into schools that were questionable in high school. The high school I attended was essentially a more urban school. And when I say ‘urban’ here, we’re talking about the socioeconomic makeup of the school, the location of the school, the access to quality food and clean water around the school.

WACOAN: Which high school was it?

Scott: This was Lincoln High School.

WACOAN: In Houston?

Scott: In Port Arthur. But this was also the school that had what we called the Summit Program, which was kind of like pre-AP courses. This was the only school that had it.

I began to realize that there were great disparities, and what I was used to in my elementary schools compared to what I was experiencing in high school. For one, we didn’t always have textbooks. Our teachers, it was a high turnover rate with our teachers. A lot of the students didn’t really have an exit plan after graduation, even though we did a lot of four-year planning going into middle school. The reality was, a lot of times those courses weren’t even available, and so you really had to have been advocating in the counseling office or had to have really super supportive parents who were really assertive about your education.

So, seeing those things, my trajectory began to become under question, and early on I made the decision that maybe I wouldn’t go to college. By the time graduation came, I was running out of options as to where I could apply and who would admit me on such late occasions. Academically I was very sound, but not a lot of institutions in May would take a chance on enrolling anyone. However, HBCUs do. In this regard, HBCUs were kind of a savior for me in terms of providing me that opportunity to higher education. I started at Texas Southern University, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life because I was exposed to instructors who were very nurturing and supportive.

I continued on at Prairie View after graduating. There was a gap of a couple of years where I was teaching. And when I realized that I loved teaching after that first and second year, I was like, well maybe I should get a master’s degree in this. So I worked on a master’s and finished that, and then I actually went into a junior college and taught at a junior college for a couple of years while I was starting my doctoral program. And after the start of my doctoral program, about a year later, one of my mentor professors received an opportunity to go to another institution, and I decided to follow him and go to that institution as well.

WACOAN: So how were your experiences at Texas Southern and Prairie View different than your experience at North Carolina-Charlotte?

Scott: They were completely different in regard to cultural atmosphere. I also attended Texas A&M. That’s where I started my doctoral program and then transferred to North Carolina-Charlotte. And so of course, they’re all four public institutions, however Texas A&M is predominantly white, so there was a culture shock there. Being a graduate student at the time, I didn’t experience it as readily as other students would have because I didn’t go to every football game and I wasn’t a part of a lot of the social interactions and things that were occurring on campus. But we could still feel that there were some different spaces.

For example, being in a classroom and I’m the only person that looks like me, I become the representative and the authority of my culture. And there’s so much literature that talks about how that’s a microaggression, and it’s also very dismantling for teachers to do to their students. However, it happened very frequently. And because of the position I was in, oftentimes you feel a pressure to still respond even though you know that this is a form of tokenism. You still feel the need to respond because if you don’t then your voice will not be heard, and the representation of the culture will not be heard. And so I felt that, not so much at the University of North Carolina, because their student population demographic is a little bit more diverse.

Now the transition from those institutions to Baylor was more of a cultural shift, but that’s to be expected. Previously my experiences were all in public school settings. So working at a private institution that is predominantly white has been a different experience for me altogether, but not one that has been as dismantling as I would think, just based on what we know about cultural assimilation as well as mainstream events. I think Baylor has done a stand-up job in trying to promote diversity, in both staffing and faculty practices, but also student opportunities. I work a lot with the Department of Multicultural Affairs. I also sit on the campus diversity committee, as well as the president’s council of diversity. So I feel like diversity and this notion of inclusion for students and staff of color is a very prominent theme in the administration.

WACOAN: Your husband is an educator as well, isn’t he?

Scott: He works as a site coordinator for Communities in Schools. He essentially helps provide intervention and support, and that could be academic, that could also be behavioral modifications and interventions for the school that he works at. So he’s at Brook Avenue [Elementary School] now. Brook Avenue is in the Transformation Zone, so a lot of his time in the school year was spent with tutoring and providing support services for parents so that students could gain more academic skills. He’s been in the classroom as well. He’s from an education background.

He worked for Waco ISD as a parent-campus liaison, so essentially, he tried to curb absenteeism amongst the students in the schools. He worked in three different schools, and so he would go door to door, trying to impart the importance of getting your kid to school and document any hardships or other issues that the families were facing in order to get their child to go to school.

WACOAN: What do you hope to see your kids do?

Scott: Well, Chadley wants to become a police officer, and I think that is very in keeping with who he is as a person. Chadley is very much a rule follower. He doesn’t like a disorderly world. He doesn’t understand why people litter. He gets upset with me if I don’t recycle. So he wants to be a police officer. I think he might also creep into being an attorney because his negotiation skills are very, very good. But he could also be a negotiator for the police department, right? So we just don’t know. Chadley is very energetic and enthusiastic about life. He could also be a pastor because he talks a lot about Jesus, which I’m very proud of as well. His spiritual foundation and growth just amazes me.

Levyn, his personality — he’s only 7 months — but his demeanor is very reserved. When he looks at you, he’s like staring into your soul, so I think he’s going to be in a more serious profession. I don’t take him to be a comedian. He might even become an academic, just because he’s OK staying up with me at night when I have to read. He’s very interested in books. He likes to turn the page and look at the colors. He may be on the track to becoming a teacher or something similar.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know about you?

Scott: Like, fun facts? Fun fact, I’m the oldest, two other siblings and we’re all five years and two months apart. Like, I’m the 28th of February, my sister is the 23rd of April but five years, then my brother is the 29th of June but 10 years later. Another fun fact is my kids — Chadley [was born] 4-4-14, and Levyn is 12-12-18. I think in another world I might have been a mathematician because I love algebraic equations.

I was homeless for a while, while I lived in Houston and I was working as a teacher. Hurricane Ike came through, and I had an apartment near Braeswood. I was on the bottom floor, and my apartment was flooded out. There was not a lot of hotels at the time. My sister was living in Houston as well. She had an apartment, and she was on the second floor. So her apartment was livable, but it had a lot of mold, and so I chose to just sleep in my car over living in a mold-infested apartment because those were our options. But that lasted maybe for a month or two. Not a long time, but I definitely connect with people that have lived in temporary housing situations because I remember trying to figure out shower situations and the question of sanitation.

It has actually shaped a lot of where I want to live. Like Waco, no hurricanes, no floods. I don’t want to move back home. Waco has been a saving grace in many ways for me and for my family. Most importantly it’s brought me closer to God because I see him moving in almost every aspect, the things I do at work, the things I do at home, the things that I want to do in my classroom. I see all those things, and I feel like I’m in a good place now because where we live is very family-oriented, the place I work is very family-based, but also spiritually grounded. So it’s a recipe for success.