Reading & Literacy

Creator of 1619 Project Launching After-School Literacy Program

By Ileana Najarro — September 07, 2021 4 min read
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A new Black history-focused literacy program has launched in Iowa and will make its curriculum available nationwide as a free, open-source online tool in 2022.

Led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead author of the 1619 Project and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, the 1619 Freedom School is a free, five-day-a-week, after-school literacy program for students in need of additional support to achieve academically. Program content focuses on Black history in a state where a new law places limits on how educators can talk about race.

There will be a soft launch of the program in October with students from the Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence, in Waterloo, Iowa, followed by a full launch for students from across the Waterloo Community School District in January.

The program is for all children in the Waterloo district who are below grade level in reading, and in particular for Black students who are the furthest behind in academic achievement, Hannah-Jones said. Parents can apply for the free program, and test scores will be reviewed to ensure students with the most need are able to participate.

Kingsley Botchway II, chief officer of human resources and equity in the Waterloo district, acknowledged that there is an opportunity gap between white students and their Black and Brown peers, and the new program helps the district’s ongoing work to close the gap.

“While the district focuses on continuing our implicit bias work, and continuing to dismantle many of the challenges that have faced our Black and Brown students to ensure they have a quality education, the 1619 [Freedom School] comes in and provides additional support,” he said.

Affirming the culture of students who are struggling the most academically

Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project is a New York Times Magazine series that centers the legacy of slavery and Black American contributions at the heart of U.S. history.

Born and raised in Waterloo, and with most of her family still living there, she said the local community has wanted more curriculum designed to affirm the culture of students who are most behind academically.

“People in the community, really since before I was even a student in the schools, have been wanting more instruction in Black history, but we just haven’t seen a great deal of that instruction,” she said. “And then, of course, the state has recently passed a law that will make that even more challenging.”

In June, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that prohibits the teaching of concepts such as “that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and “that the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

Earlier in 2021, there were efforts in the state to ban the use of curriculum derived from the 1619 Project. The 1619 Freedom School is independent of the project and the project’s associated curriculum created by the Pulitzer Center, Hannah-Jones said.

For the literacy program, Hannah-Jones said she’s not concerned about critics.

“I’m not sure what the criticism can be for providing a free service that parents can choose to be in if they’re interested, that’s trying to help our community and our students to have a sense of empowerment, and to be able to read better so they can achieve academically,” she said.

The 1619 Freedom School’s curriculum was created by Sabrina Wesley-Nero of Georgetown University and LaGarrett King of the University of Missouri and teaches basic literacy skills such as phonics and comprehension, but the texts are Black history books and Black literature, Hannah-Jones added. The curriculum will also become a free and open online resource in 2022.

The focus on Black-centered texts for the program is key to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan School of Education, who said students of color already face curriculum and texts that don’t represent them, and that that lack of representation and cultural responsiveness extends to assessments that students take throughout their education.

Furthermore, after-school literacy programs like the 1619 Freedom School and other forms of supplemental tutoring and specialists are something wealthy parents already have access to, Thomas added.

“I’m heartened by the launch of the 1619 Freedom School,” Thomas said. “I think that it will be a net benefit for children in that community and I hope to see more programs like it emerge in the future.”

The very name of the program, referencing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Schools, which provided political education to the Black community during the Civil Rights movement, is intended to evoke the centuries-long struggle of Black people to get a quality and equal education for their children, Hannah-Jones said.

Initial funding comes from groups such as the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, CUNA Mutual Group, Lionsgate, and Open Society Foundations. The program is also raising funds to provide participating students with a take-home library.

“I really do believe that liberation comes through literacy and education,” Hannah-Jones said.

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