Freedom School Provides New Hope for Probationary Youth in Alameda County

When Monica Vaughan said, “Good morning,” the group of 32 young men seated in the sun-drenched auditorium jumped to their feet. “Good morning — G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G!” they chanted, clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Some of the young men danced.

Vaughan laughed, taking the welcome in stride. Moments before, the male teens had finished the first part of the morning assembly — the “harambee” (a Swahili term that means “Let’s pull together”) — in which they had danced, sung, and chanted. Energy was high in the room, and some of the young men had rapped into the microphone, so their loud welcome — albeit unusual — was not out of the norm.

Vaughn was there as a guest speaker at a special six-week summer reading program at Freedom School at Camp Wilmont Sweeney, a youth probation camp in the hills of San Leandro. Vaughn is the chief of schools for the Alameda County Office of Education. Each week, Freedom School staffers invite members of the community to their morning assembly to talk about their careers and read excerpts from books to the young men, who are on probation. The morning I visited, members of the probation office staff also sang and danced with the young men.

The “harambee” and the read-aloud guests are two fixtures of the program at Freedom School. Later in the day, the young men read books about youths not unlike many of them, who may have gotten into trouble or grew up in difficult socioeconomic conditions. The program is designed to help the young men with their reading skills, but for the people who work there and its participants, the Freedom School also provides an important community.

[jump] The Freedom School at Camp Sweeney is one of many funded by the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit child advocacy organization. The Children’s Defense Fund backs Freedom School programs nationwide, and supports 34 such programs in California. Camp Sweeney is the only juvenile probation center in the Bay Area that hosts a Freedom School, although there are other schools in Oakland that also offer the program.

LaDonna Harris, Alameda County Chief Probation Officer, said she first learned of Freedom School when meeting with Los Angeles County probation officers who had implemented the program and they told her they saw positive changes in their youth. Her interest was piqued after hearing about the amount of excitement the program had generated in Los Angeles, as well as the culturally relevant material in the reading program.

The books selected include We Were Here by Matt de la Pena, which describes the story of boys running away from a group home, and Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper, which features a group of young men who get into a car crash after a night of drinking and killing one of their own in the process. After reading the books, the students discuss them and do projects related to them.

“We’re trying to see what’s going to get them to think differently, to want to be different, to want to have an outcome that is different than what the statistics tell them their outcome will be and help them find the spaces they will fit in and that will get them to be where they want to be,” Harris said.

In an open discussion, many of the young men said they grew to like reading these books. One young man said that the harambee was one of his favorite parts about school, but that he also liked the readings. “The books they give us are about us — you know,” he said.

Unlike the Los Angeles Probation Freedom School, Camp Sweeney’s Freedom School program has a blended staff, with employees and teachers from the Alameda County Probation Office, Lincoln Child Center, and the Alameda County of Education. Brooklyn Williams of the Lincoln Child Center, a nonprofit that provides programs and services to families impacted by trauma and poverty, is the director of Camp Sweeney’s Freedom School.

The program is organized thematically — this summer, the theme is making a difference. Each week, the students read books and do projects based on themes ranging from making a personal difference to making a difference in the community or the world. The students organized a food drive as part of the theme — food that could be given back to some of the students’ families.

“A lot of the [young] men were arrested because they were trying to get money for their families,” Williams said. “It’s important to give them a sense of giving back to the family, and give them a different version of what that looks like.”

One of the challenges that Harris noted, however, is continuing to support the young men after they leave Freedom School, and later, Camp Sweeney. She said there were concerns about maintaining the level of excitement for learning after the school concluded, as well as transitioning back to community schools with more traditional structures. Williams said that Freedom School had certain aspects, such as the morning assembly and guest speakers, that other schools could emulate. Both Harris and Williams are also encouraging other juvenile probation centers to observe their school in hopes that other systems might implement the program as well.

Some of the boys at the camp, when asked, said they had never been excited for school until Freedom School. One asked Vaughan how to get Freedom School to be year round.

One teen said that before he got to Freedom School, he did the bare minimum to pass regular classes and get by. Where he’s from, he said, people hesitate to let their children off their porch for fear of violence. When he gets out of Freedom School and Camp Sweeney, he said he wants to be a barber and help provide for his community, encouraged by his teacher to pursue his hobby of cutting hair.

“When I got here, I don’t talk to nobody — I thought, I came here alone, I’m going to leave alone,” he said. “But now I got all these friends and once we get out of here the team will stay together. I learned about the domino effect on how I want to make my community better and it can start with just one person. I want to help and I want to change something.” 

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