Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of the 1619 Freedom School, talks about the school, on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Waterloo Kelsey Kremer/The Register
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By Melody Mercado, Des Moines Register

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and Iowa native Nikole Hannah-Jones is launching a free, community-based after-school literacy program for students in the Waterloo Community School District.

The 1619 Freedom School will help students improve literacy skills and develop a passion for reading through “liberating instruction centered on Black American history.”

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Hannah-Jones, a graduate of Waterloo West High School, told the Des Moines Register she had not only been wanting to start a literacy program, but was also looking for a way to give back to her hometown, among other reasons.

In 2018, 24/7 Wall Street named Waterloo, the city with the highest concentration of Black Iowans, the worst city for Black Americans based on unemployment, income disparities, homeownership and high school graduation rates. Additionally, Black students in the Waterloo School District, which make up 26% of the district, are 2.2 grades behind their white peers, on average, according to data by ProPublica.

The 1619 Freedom School will be a free, five-days-a-week after-school program targeting students whose standardized test scores show they are behind academically — starting with fourth-grade students at the district’s Walter Cunningham Elementary School, a school the organization identifies as having the highest poverty and segregation rate in the district.

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“The research shows that students need literary instruction going all the way up through high school,” Hannah-Jones said. “Low-income kids, who are the most behind in reading, need the most literacy support, so this program intends to get cohorts of students in fourth grade and follow them and continue to offer support as they go up through their academic career.”

The program’s leadership team consists of five Black women, including Hannah-Jones, all native to Waterloo with experience and passion for education and deep roots in the community. They believe the program will provide “liberation through literacy” by giving Black students the additional academic support they deserve.

“We wanted to help the Waterloo School District with closing that achievement gap with an outside program,” said Sheritta Stokes, co-director of the 1619 Freedom School and a current elementary school teacher at Walter Cunningham. “Helping [students] learn how to read and also incorporate some African American history and using books with people that look like them, teaching them about all the great people in the past that did things to motivate them to say, ‘Hey, I can do that, too’.”

‘We’re intentional with everything that we’re doing’

Everything about the program — from the name to the color theme and curriculum — is intentional, Hannah-Jones said.

Joy Briscoe, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Sharina Sallis, Sheritta Strokes and Lori Dale, The leadership team of the 1619 freedom school, talk about what the school will look like, on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Waterloo. Kelsey Kremer/The Register

The program is named in combination for the beginning of Black American history — 1619 — and the “freedom schools” that were founded during the civil rights movement, which were free, temporary, alternative schools to educate Black youth on their history and how to fight for social, economic, political and economic equality.

The program’s colors — black, red and green — are the colors of the Black Nationalist Flag so that students can “evoke a sense of pride in their culture.”

“We’re intentional with everything that we’re doing with this … to teach children to fight for their own liberation and to show them that they have a deep, storied past that they can be proud of,” Hannah-Jones said. “The literature on this is very clear that when Black students are exposed to Black history, they excel — they do better, academically.”

The school’s curriculum was designed by Dr. Sabrina Nero, an associate teaching professor at Georgetown University, and Dr. LaGarrett King, an associate professor

at the University of Missouri, who were tasked with creating a unique literacy program that incorporates Black history.

Favorite historical figures in the curriculum include Audrey Faye Hendricks, one of the youngest to march and get arrested during the civil rights movement, and Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus at age 15. Rosa Parks would go on to do the same thing nine months later.

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“It’s a story for kids to talk about things that gives kids the initiative to say, ‘Hey, I can be more than just sitting in class, playing around. I can impact the community, even at a young age’,” said Lori Dale, an advisor for the 1619 Freedom School.

The literacy program will also feature history about Waterloo and the contribution of Black Americans in Waterloo to the civil rights movement.

An emphasis on independent programming

According to the school’s leadership team, one of the most important aspects of the 1619 Freedom School is that it is a completely independent program that does not rely on government funding.

Republicans in the Iowa Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that they say bans “critical race theory,” although the law does not specifically mention that term. There is disagreement surrounding what the law does and does not ban, particularly in relation to training and curriculum at schools.

The new law (House File 802) puts stipulations on mandatory diversity training provided to state or local government employees, as well as students and staff at school districts and public colleges. The law also includes provisions that affect school curriculum.

Despite what others may think based on the school’s name, the program has nothing to do with the 1619 Project, which Hannah-Jones created and published in The New York Times Magazine in 2019. The program’s leadership also stressed that the school has nothing to do with critical race theory, but everything to do with teaching kids how to read.

“To even have to provide a response to that … is truly not appropriate,” said Sharina Sallis, the program’s community relations manager. “Instead of asking questions based on fear, ask questions based on curiosity and leaning in to see what you can do to help close the gap to help see children thrive in this community.”

Hannah-Jones said that although the 1619 Freedom School has nothing to do with critical race theory, the controversy in Iowa has had a chilling effect on potential partnerships and funding opportunities for the program.

“We were asked to change the name to receive some support and I said we will not,” Hannah-Jones said. “We are also not able to have, I think, the type of relationship that we would want to have with the Waterloo schools because there is fear if that could cause some trouble and I think that’s shameful.”

“Waterloo schools is working with us, but when there is a fear of how you can work with that program because of a governor who doesn’t live in this community and legislators who don’t serve this community think there’s something wrong with teaching Black children Black history,” Hannah-Jones continued.

Joy Briscoe, Sheritta Strokes, Lori Dale, Sharina Sallis and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the leadership team of the 1619 freedom school, pose for a photo in the space they’ll host the school, on Tuesday, Aug. 2021, in Waterloo. Kelsey Kremer/The Register

The program will start supporting students in October and will move into its new space on the second floor of the historic Masonic Temple in downtown Waterloo in January. The space is currently under renovation and, when completed, will have a library, kitchen and modern workspaces for its students.

There are also already plans in motion for opening a second, satellite location, which would be hosted in the community center of the ALL-IN-GROCERS, a new Black-owned grocery set to open in Waterloo next year.

Although the emphasis will be on in-person literary support and instruction for Waterloo district students, the curriculum will be available online as an open-source curriculum that anyone will be able to access.

Want to help or learn more?

The 1619 Freedom School hopes to make a reading library of books specific to Black history available to students to take home to read, including:

To donate toward the library, visit amzn.to/3t31a0G.

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For more information on the 1619 Freedom School, visit 1619FreedomSchool.org.

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