CHAMPAIGN — Freedom School in Champaign starts with an energetic, full-of-movement gathering of college students, who work as intern teachers, leading students (called scholars at Freedom School) in songs, chants, dances and cheers.
It's a circle of energy, with every child engaged and obviously having a great time.
This is Freedom School's 10th summer in Champaign, and this year, it's at Stratton Leadership and Microsociety Magnet School.
The morning ritual is called Harambee, which means "all pull together" in Kiswahili. Along with the dancing and singing, it also includes a guest reading a story (Thursday, it was Regional Office of Education Superintendent Jane Quinlan) and recognitions for special things happening, like birthdays.
Then, the 60 or so kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students split into smaller groups to focus on reading.
Getting their energy out during Harambee allows them to concentrate while reading books with their intern teachers, participate in discussion about the books and complete the assignments that follow.
Keisha Burke, the family liaison for Freedom School, calls the schedule for a typical day at Freedom School a roller coaster.
But another roller coaster over the last 10 summers has been funding for the program.
When funding was good, Freedom School accepted more students and even served students in Rantoul.
"One year, we could take up to 100 kids," Burke said. "Now, we're down to only 50 or 60 kids."
In the past, students in high school could attend. Now, the school serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Stratton and Doctor Howard elementaries in Champaign, along with some homeless students. There's a wait list to get in, Burke said.
"We can only take so many kids because of funding," she said.
But while funding has become a challenge for the six-week program, Burke said, one focus of this year's program is to show those who care about it that they can make a difference.
This summer's theme at the school is "Living the Legacy," and organizers are emphasizing how important it is to register to vote.
"We're pushing people to register to vote to save positive programs like this," Burke said, adding that it's important because it's a unique blend of academics (with a specific focus on literacy), fun and exposure to new experiences.
"We really need this program to keep going," Burke said.
Freedom School is sponsored by the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education, and the program is through the Children's Defense Fund, a national organization.
Champaign's Freedom School is paid for with a 21st Century Grant from the Illinois State Board of Education, the United Way and Illinois Department of Human Services’ Teen Reach.
This year, Centennial High School graduate Bria Harvey is working as an intern at Freedom School, but she attended as a child and then volunteered when she was too old to be a scholar.
"I loved it," said Harvey, who just finished her freshman year at North Carolina A&T State University. "It's the reason I am back here today."
She remembers looking up to the interns as a child, and now appreciates their reactions to her and her coworkers.
She credits her experiences in Freedom School to teaching her how to be herself.
"Freedom school made me be not afraid to be the crazy, loud person I am," Harvey said.
It also aims to expose students to a variety of experiences.
They sing, learn dance and step, go swimming, learn about health and fitness, about how to act in confidence and present themselves in public, among other lessons.
"Every day they have something new," Burke said.
Visitors have included politicians and community leaders, like Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb, Champaign Superintendent Judy Wiegand and school board President Sue Grey, Burke said.
"It is academic-based (program), an academic culture of life enrichment, life skills (and) a positive atmosphere ... and students giving back to their community," Burke said.
Freedom School will have a final presentation for parents and community members to show off what students have been doing during the last six weeks.
It's scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Thursday, July 26, at Mount Olive Baptist Church, 808 E. Bradley Ave., C.