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Clara Petty: Bringing the Freedom School to Some Fortunate Toledo Students

By Fletcher Word
Sojourner’s Truth Editor

Now in her 10th year as executive director of the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center (MSNC), Clara Petty oversees a number of programs and services designed to strengthen families and offer children a safe environment outside of the home. The Center’s most recent addition to these services – the Children Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School, a six-week summer literacy program which premiered this year – helped the Center take its mission a step further by offering children a nationally recognized creative curriculum with a proven track record of success.

Over the course of the six-week program, the teaching staff and community volunteers enriched the lives of 56 students through morning readings, the Integrated Reading Curriculum that the CDF has developed and afternoon activities such as art, theater, music and dance.

The Freedom School enhanced an already rich variety of programs and services offered by the MSNC. The list includes Adventure Camp (a nine-week camp filled with learning and exploration); The Bridge (providing emergency food, clothing and transportation); Dress Right for Men and Women (providing professional clothing for those entering the job market); Documents Matter (assistance with securing a birth certificate or state ID) along with assorted wellness programs for seniors such as Zumba Gold, Tai-Chi, cardio dance and a walking class.

This is not the first time Toledo students have benefitted from the presence of Freedom School. The Center of Hope has had a Freedom School in Toledo for almost a decade ago and, if funding is available, will bring back its Freedom School in 2018.

Clara Petty

Deborah Washington and guest reader
Lenora Barry

The MSNC’s Freedom School was the brainchild of Gloria Layson, a member of the Braden United Methodist Church, who approached Rev. Larry Clark, pastor of Monroe Street United Methodist Church (which houses the MSNC) with the concept. Then Clara Petty came into the picture and a partnership was formed with the church, the MSNC and the Maumee Watershed District – the region’s 25 Methodist churches.

 “A church can’t be a Freedom School,” said Petty who became the program’s administrator. “It needs to be a 501c(3) so Pastor Clark came to us and said we should do it.”

Money needed to be raised, of course. The Center had to come up with $65,000 to cover the Freedom School expenses such as training, staffing and testing. After a failed first attempt last year, the partnership of the 25 churches in the Maumee Watershed District, the Monroe Street church and the Center and a grant from the Toledo Rotary Foundation resulted in a successful fundraising effort.

“We could not have done Freedom School without the support of the 25 Methodist churches of the Maumee Watershed District that poured financial and spiritual help into the school,” said Petty.

Petty then enlisted the aid of Pastor Elizabeth Rand, who would be program director, and retired Toledo Public Schools principal Deborah Washington, PhD, who would be site coordinator – essentially serving as the principal of the Freedom School.

Rand coordinated the activities that are so critical to the success of the Freedom School concept – bringing in volunteers (especially from the 25 churches) to oversee breakfast, read to the children, sit with them in the lunchroom and lead enrichment activities. Diverse groups such as the Toledo School for the Arts and Lucas County Courts were brought in as part of the enrichment activities programs.

Individuals like Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and former University of Toledo men’s basketball coach Stan Joplin were part of the group of guest readers who volunteered their time.

Washington set about mastering the Freedom School curriculum and put in about 250 hours prior to the opening of the summer session – without pay – researching, organizing and training “because she really believed in the program,” said Petty. “You have to have a commitment in order to give away that amount of time.”

Student Leader Interns (SLI) – teachers – were also brought on board prior to the summer opening to undergo training to master the Freedom School concepts and curriculum.

All that preparation notwithstanding, the summer was not without its challenges. The SLIs quickly discovered that a number of the five-year-olds, who are slated to enter kindergarten this fall, weren’t ready for the Freedom School curriculum. The SLIs “had to refocus” on the fly, said Petty, and lower their expectations of the youngsters’ capabilities.

Nevertheless, “overall Freedom School was a success,” said Petty. “We did it right, we implemented a lot of things that children might not be exposed to.” That said, Petty is ready to do bigger and better things in the future. She would like to expand the program into the academic year and she would like to raise even more money in order to pay the staff better wages.

Petty is now awaiting the results of the post-session testing that the Freedom Schools performs as part of the process – the students were subjected to testing before the summer as well in order to measure outcomes.

The Children’s Defense Fund grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and was founded by Marian Wright Edelman in 1973. Edelman, the first black woman admitted to the Bar in Mississippi, had served as the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s office in Jackson, MS. The CDF mission is to ensure that children, particularly minorities and the poor, are healthy, educated, safe and given a fair chance to achieve adulthood.

The Freedom Schools began in 1995 with a focus on literacy, parent involvement, conflict resolution and social action.


Copyright © 2017 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 08/10/17 21:23:57 -0700.

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