NFL quarterback DeShaun Watson, Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles and multi-Grammy winner Chance the Rapper (Bennett) were among the historical figures portrayed in the W. Vernon Middleton Fine Arts Center on the campus of Claflin University on July 27.
Their message was one of upliftment.
The 67 scholars participating in the sixth year of Claflin’s Freedom School vicariously portrayed Watson, Biles and Bennett under the direction and choreography of associate professors of speech and drama Annette Grevious and Cedric Rembert during the program’s hour-long theatrical production finale.
“The Museum of Difference Makers: Hall of Historical Figures” was the culminating performance of the six-week enrichment program aimed at curbing summer learning loss and closing achievement gaps, something that Claflin University President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale and project director Nathan Chaplin both agree will ensure a level playing field for all children.
When Dr. Marian Wright Edleman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, visited Tisdale and extended an invitation for Claflin to be one the host sites in the Southeast for the CDF's Freedom Schools, he said he knew he had made the right decision when accepted.
“We know the program is making a difference,” Tisdale told the crowd of parents, guardians and community leaders. “We see a difference in the scholars' attitude towards learning, their confidence levels, and the feedback we receive is tremendous.”
Tisdale said the community has a responsibility to tell children that they are strong, visionary leaders and that they’re going to be someone great. Encouraging children to thrive is one of the best things people can do, he noted.
Chaplin said this summer's program was one of the smoothest he’s experienced. He credits that to the support of the parents, the university and community leaders who served as read-a-loud guests and speakers, such as state Sen. Brad Hutto and Rep. Jerry Govan.
There was a waiting list for the program due to the growing popularity of Freedom Schools. While Claflin is one of several sites in the state, Chaplin said it is one of the most popular.
“Students leave more prepared for their next grade level,” he said. “They exit with a greater voice to serve in the classroom and the community.”
According to its website, the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools program model curriculum supports children and families around five essential components: high-quality academic enrichment, parent and family involvement, social action and civic engagement, intergenerational servant leadership development and nutrition, health and mental health.
Each year, the program recognizes a community leader who’s made an impact on the university’s Freedom School or in their respective field of expertise.
However, there was a deviation from that this year, which Chaplin said was necessary.
This summer would have been Aniyah Flood’s third year participating in the program, but an unforeseen incident kept her from joining some her classmates from Clark Middle School.
With the use of a walker, Aniyah was “surprised and overjoyed” as she stood to receive the “Freedom School Honors” award.
The future veterinarian said she was thankful to have been honored, adding that it gave her motivation to make those who believe in her proud as she enters seventh grade.
Allendale native Youshi Kirkland said the Freedom School experience afforded him the opportunity to manage a classroom while still pursuing his degree in middle level education at Claflin. Kirkland said he taught as well as learned.
“We grew a bond,” he said. “The scholars helped me find my mojo and vibe – my teaching style.”
Kirkland said he couldn't wait for the weekend to end so he could resume teaching and learning. He helped conclude the evening’s program along with the other educational interns with "cheers and chants" that are sung each morning during "Harambee," the Swahili term that means "all pull together."
The scholars, described by Tisdale as "the next doctors, philanthropists and college presidents," closed out the program singing "So Strong," written by British musician Labi Siffre: “The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become. The farther you take my rights away, the faster I will run. You can deny me. You can decide to turn your face away. No matter ‘cause there’s something inside so strong … ”