UVA and Charlottesville City Schools Partner to Host Virtual Freedom School

Audrey Breen

The Curry School’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) and the Charlottesville City School System have partnered to open Virginia's next Freedom School.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) and the Charlottesville City School System have partnered to open Virginia's next Freedom School.

Freedom Schools, an initiative of the Children’s Defense Fund, are rooted in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project. Replicated in locations across the country, Freedom Schools offer students a summer program aimed at developing literacy skills. Known for both their celebratory spirit and their academic accomplishment, Freedom Schools already take place in Lynchburg and Norfolk, Virginia.

“Given the events of August 2017, our colleagues in the center and members of the Charlottesville community thought a Freedom School could serve as a concrete way for the university and local community to collaborate on a project serving children,” said Derrick Alridge, professor and director of the Center for Race and Public Education in the South at the Curry School of Education and Human Development and executive director of the Charlottesville Freedom School. “Grounded in ideals of freedom and social justice, we believe a Freedom School could help bring about healing in Charlottesville and show our collective commitment to advancing civil rights and social justice in our time.”

Due to COVID-19, the national Freedom Schools organization created several options for locations to shift from in-person to virtual experiences and the first Charlottesville Freedom School is taking place online. Launched June 15th, the Charlottesville Freedom School is serving rising 3rd through 5th grade students for five weeks.  Seven UVA undergraduates are servant leader interns, the Freedom School’s classroom teachers, leading activities for students on the online platform. Charlottesville City School teacher Christen Edwards oversees the day to day operations of the Freedom School as the site coordinator.

"We were very pleased to bring Christen onto the team,” Alridge said. “Her knowledge of the schools and expertise as a CCS teacher, her deep understanding of the history of freedom schools and commitment to the principles of freedom and social justice make her the perfect site coordinator. Plus, she has the energy and enthusiasm necessary to convey the spirit of Freedom Schools."

The Freedom School’s culturally relevant reading materials are rooted in the Civil Rights Movement and aim to develop children’s activism and agency. The theme of the program is, I can make a difference in myself, my home, my community, my nation and my world. Students are enjoying activities that are geared towards developing their skills as oral historians so they can become storytellers of their family’s history. Students will also participate in virtual tours of the Jefferson School, Monticello and other historic sites. Additionally, parents have access to free webinars on topics ranging from navigating the school system to managing with stress during COVID-19.

This free program is providing books, school supplies, and art supplies, generously donated from the UVA Equity Center, as well as two daily meals to participating Albemarle County and Charlottesville City students.  

Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins notes, “The combination of the Curry School’s expertise, the joyful atmosphere of Freedom Schools, and the emphasis on literacy will benefit our students and our community. We’re excited to partner.”

“I’m excited to be part of a movement that supports students’ academic and social-emotional learning though the use of culturally relevant materials and practices, community engagement, and innovative teaching training,” said Johari Harris, assistant research professor at the Curry School and project director of the Charlottesville Freedom School. “While this looks much different than a traditional Freedom School, we believe its efforts to support and empower children and communities is needed now more than ever. I think this inaugural year will be a wonderful experience that will set the foundation for an ongoing partnership between CPRES, the Charlottesville City Schools and other local school districts.” 

The Charlottesville Freedom School is made possible through the co-sponsorship of many organizations including the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP, Albemarle County Schools, Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Monticello, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity's Epsilon Psi Boulé of Charlottesville, St. Anne's Belfield School, The University of Virginia President's Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation (PCUAS), and Youth-Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.