The Continuing Legacy of Freedom Schools as Sites of Possibility for Equity and Social Justice for Black Students

By Jackson, Tambra O.; Howard, Tyrone C. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Continuing Legacy of Freedom Schools as Sites of Possibility for Equity and Social Justice for Black Students


Jackson, Tambra O., Howard, Tyrone C., The Western Journal of Black Studies


This spring the nation observed the 60th anniversary of the historic Brown v Board of Education decision which was purported to transform the pursuit of educational equity in the United States. With this important milestone has been a chorus of conversations about the plight of equity in education for underserved populations at a time when the nation's schools continue to see unparalleled ethnic and racial diversity (Banks, 2012). What is painfully clear in the celebration of the Brown milestone is that despite a plethora of school reform efforts, standards based education movements, legislative interventions (NCLB and Race to the Top), increased testing, the new Common Core State Standards, and an unprecedented surge in charter schools across the country, African American students continue to underachieve in comparison to their counterparts from different racial and ethnic backgrounds (NCES, 2013).

The current state of educational affairs have led many to question what the real benefits of the Brown decision were, namely for African American students (Bell, 2004). The achievement disparities between African American students and their White, Asian, and Latino counterparts have been well documented over the past two decades (Howard, 2010; Milner, 2010). Some contend that issues around performance disparities are due to a combination of various structural and cultural factors. The structural arguments center on chronic poverty in various communities, underfunded schools, low teacher quality, and social policies which reinforce racial inequities (Anyon, 2005; Carter & Weiner, 2013; Gorski, 2013; Spring, 2006). Those attributing disparate academic outcomes to cultural factors point to crime ridden communities, lack of parental involvement, students' behaviors and choices as being the culprit for poor schooling experiences. Despite these calls for societal transformation and resource redistribution, educational practitioners and researchers alike continue to seek meaningful, day-to-day interventions that may reverse the academic underperformance of African American students in U.S. schools (Donnor & Dixson, 2013; Milner, 2012).

Contemporary rhetoric around Black student academic achievement suggests that Black students are in crisis, particularly Black males. This crisis is often framed around Black students' underachievement in schools as compared to their White counterparts. Thus, Black students are positioned from deficit perspectives as problematic and lacking while White students are revered as the normative standard despite the fact that they are not achieving at high levels either. However, rarely do we see in mainstream discourse around the so-called achievement gap counter narratives that speak to building the intellectual identities of achievement and success for Black students with positive cultural identity and social action as the foundation. Building upon their predecessors from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools offer such a counter narrative model. In this article, we demonstrate how Freedom Schools are designed to interrupt the at large social framework of education where Black children are positioned as inferior and incapable. We limit our analysis to focus on teacher development as pertinent to obtaining equity and justice for Black youth in American public schools.

Educational State of Affairs for African American Students

A voluminous number of statistics explain the severity and persistence of academic underachievement and social challenges of African American students in PreK-12 schools. In many states across the country, the numbers are mind-numbing; consider the fact that a majority of African American students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades do not reach grade level proficiency in reading, mathematics, history, and science (NCES, 2013), fewer than ten percent of African American students were at or above grade level in these same subject matter areas, and only single digits were at advanced levels. …

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