Waterloo after school program improves reading skills through Black history

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Grant Leo Winterer/ IPR. Nearly 50 of Waterloo's 4th and 5th graders attend both large and small group reading sessions | Grant Leo Winterer/ IPR. Casi 50 alumnos de 4º y 5º de Waterloo asisten a sesiones de lectura en grupos grandes y pequeños.
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By Grant Leo Winterer, Iowa Public Radio

The 1619 Freedom School is working to close the literacy gap in the city’s elementary schools.

For four afternoons every week, the second floor of Waterloo’s historic Masonic Temple is flooded with the sounds of shouts and sneakers. They’re made by 4th and 5th graders attending the 1619 Freedom School’s after school literacy program for Waterloo’s Black students.

The school was founded in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, when elementary teacher Sheritta Stokes noticed an alarming trend in her remote learning curriculum.

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“I had 24 students in my class, and nine would log on daily, and I was just concerned with the achievement gap in reading,” she said. “Particularly with African American students, that gap has always been huge.”

That gap is compounded by the fact that Iowa school systems stop teaching literacy skills after the 4th grade, meaning that students who aren’t already on par with their peers will often fall further behind.

Stokes’ hunch was that the distance could be narrowed by engaging her students with stories that reflected their own history, experiences and skin color. She calls it “authentic reading.”

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“It uses positive images of African Americans to teach the kids reading,” Stokes said. “We know that history is important to learn, and for some reason kids really like learning about old stuff. They really enjoy it.”

Grant Leo Winterer/IPR. Small groups in the school focus on group reading.

In the Freedom School’s first year alone, the program’s 5th graders improved their state literacy scores by about 30 percentage points.

The school has since grown to about 50 enrolled students and 10 volunteer teachers, most of whom are also African American.

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Gary Crawford is one of those instructors. He’s a 5th grade teacher by day and has been with the school since it began. Crawford grew up in Waterloo. He said in addition to improved literacy, he’s hoping the program will make his students more aware of their community’s history than he was.

“As a kid, when I was their age, they didn’t tell me any of that stuff,” he said. “So now that I have some of that knowledge, I’m really honored to be able to share that with them so they can hopefully get out into the neighborhoods and see some of those buildings.”

So far, that’s exactly what’s been happening. The students are thinking Howard, not Harvard, and parents are hearing less about Buffalo Bill and more about the Buffalo Soldiers.

Cam Turner, whose son Cace was a member of last year’s 1619 class, said the program opened his eyes to his community’s history.

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“After he went to the Freedom School, he became way more curious about Black history and the lived experience of African Americans versus the lived experiences of other Americans,” she said.

The year with the school also boosted Cace’s reading skills. Last year, his state literacy scores were second across all 4th graders citywide.

Turner said even now in Cace’s 5th grade year, her son is still seeking out library books centering on Black history and figures.

She credited the visibility of Black faculty at the school with her son’s academic success and continued curiosity.

“That type of exposure and that type of inclusion just opened their brain up to other possibilities,” Turner said, “They’re thinking, ‘This is something I can absolutely do,’ and it’s that kind of stuff that’s priceless.”

Grant Leo Winterer/IPR. One of several murals in the 1619 Freedom School depicting pivotal moments in Black history.

According to one Johns Hopkins study, African American students who’ve had at least one Black teacher by the third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college. Having at least one Black teacher also reduces Black low-income students’ dropout rates by 29%.

It’s those kinds of numbers that have brought the 1619 Freedom School to the attention of the Waterloo Community Schools. The program has partnered with the district over the past year.

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The partnership so far has inspired the district to take a closer look at representation in its elementary curriculum.

“We want kids to see a reflection of themselves in the books that they read,” said Jennifer Hartman, the district’s elementary education director. “We’ve really made a concerted effort to make sure that we have great quality literature, and they can see kids that look just like them.”

She added that with a focus on implementing some of the Freedom School’s teaching ideas at the elementary level, literacy scores have risen nearly seven percentage points across the district’s 4th and 5th grades.

“By continuing this really concerted effort where we’re all working on the same skills, we’re really pulling in the science of reading and how to help kids decode, all sorts of resources that we haven’t used in the past, we’re seeing some great dividends pay off,” Hartman said.

The 1619 program and the Waterloo Community School District are working even more closely together with spring testing nearly underway, which seems interrupted only by daydreams of upcoming summer camps.

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