Crossroads School named a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School site

By Elizabeth M. Johnson

Crossroads School’s 21st Street Campus in Santa Monica.

The Children’s Defense Fund has designated Santa Monica’s Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences as a Freedom School site for Summer 2021. The school will host a six-week summer literacy and cultural enrichment program for 50 students of color and their families from the Pico neighborhood, which has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in Santa Monica.

The program, which begins in June, will focus on addressing summer learning loss and academic achievement gaps among at-risk children that have worsened because of teaching and learning challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building upon a CDF Freedom School template, the program will include literacy and character-building activities, parent and family development, civic engagement and social action, intergenerational servant leadership development, and nutrition and health activities, including meals and healthy snacks for students.

“Being a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School site is a great benefit to Crossroads School,” said Derric J. Johnson, founding director of the Crossroads School Equity & Justice Institute and an executive council member of CDF-California. “We are building up the foundation for meaningful community engagement opportunities.”

That community engagement includes working with Virginia Avenue Park, a community hub for the Pico neighborhood. Their leaders have reached out to parent groups to invite them to participate; by mid-January, 30 families had already expressed interest in the 50 available spots.

Johnson is also working with Santa Monica College to recruit students to work with the program.

“We want to have students from the same social demographic and racial profile as the summer school participants to facilitate the program as servant leader interns, so we are working with Black Collegians and Adelante, the Latino Center at the college,” Johnson explained.

More than 100 students signed up to attend an informational meeting. There are openings for seven to 10 servant leader interns.

Funding partner Pacific Western Bank will also offer free financial literacy training for parents of the Equity & Justice Institute CDF Freedom School scholars. The training is one way that the program supports the entire family not just the children.

“Financial literacy is crucial, especially with the need for families to get into affordable housing,” Johnson said. “Not having stable housing affects students’ ability to learn, it creates academic achievement gaps because of displacement. Having financial knowledge impacts the long-term stability of families in the community.”

Freedom School scholars will receive new books every week to strengthen their literacy skills and build libraries in their homes. To be culturally responsive, the books will feature heroes, heroines and settings, and reflect the students’ cultural images, histories and abilities.

The program will also have a mathematics and STEM focus. Johnson planned to meet with leaders at Snapchat to discuss having the company offer computer science, coding and other STEM activities that would introduce students to careers in technology.

“We’re still putting the pieces of the puzzle together to create a program that will be in line with fidelity to the CDF model and will connect with the students,” Johnson said.

One missing puzzle piece is how COVID-19 might affect the program’s delivery. Ideally, students would meet on-site at Crossroad School for Arts & Sciences and take occasional field trips, but depending on pandemic numbers in June, a hybrid model of in-person and online learning may be required.

The CDF Freedom Schools program has its roots in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964 and is one of the methods the organization uses to advance the Children’s Defense Fund Leave No Child Behind mission: to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life.

Speaking the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Johnson noted that the first Freedom Schools came into existence in response to the educational imbalances brought about by racial inequities. In many communities, those inequities still exist.

”As far as we think we have come, we are still in circumstances where programs like this are necessary,” Johnson said. “COVID-19 has been a catalyst to unearth the racial divisions and inequities that exist. Parents are seeing their children falling behind academically. Through this Freedom School program, we want to help students to not fall further behind.”

Plans call for the Equity & Justice CDF Freedom School to operate each summer over the next three years to provide a continuing commitment to families, impact academic achievement, and more effectively track and analyze the success of the program.