The freedom to learn

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 4, 2006

AHOSKIE – Sometimes the greatest achievements are born out of some of humanity’s greatest shortcomings.

Originally started as a &uot;Freedom School&uot;, the Hertford County Summer Enrichment Program is still thriving four years after the county decided to take control of the program internally.

The program, which is held at Bearfield Primary School in Ahoskie, is still a huge facilitator for academic and social excellence as well as a vehicle for future school leaders to get their feet wet.

The original Freedom School concept was created during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s in response to white repression as well as fragmentation and competition among several civil rights organizations.

In 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Council of Federated Organizations conceived the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, a major political action program involving approximately 1,000 chiefly white volunteers designed to promote African American equality and basic democratic rights through various strategic activities.

One of those strategic initiatives was to conduct a summer program providing teenage African American students with richer educational experiences than the normal school year could provide.

Eventually this initiative led to the formation of the Children’s Defense Fund as part of the Washington Research Project in 1973.

Currently there are 30 such programs operating across the United States. The Hertford County project, in its ninth year, was the first of its kind in the state of North Carolina.

The first four years that the program existed, officials would make the trip to Washington D.C. to get books and information on how to best maximize the program’s initiatives.

Ronald Gatling, director of the program explained how the initiative became locally funded.

&uot;We used to make the trip to D.C. every summer and then we realized that we could duplicate that environment right here in Hertford County,&uot; Gatling said. &uot;With help from the Hertford County Public School system we were able to tailor our own version to suit the needs of this community as well as save the expense of making the annual trip to the nation’s capital.&uot;

Gatling proudly states that the program is the longest running educational enrichment program in Hertford County.

The enrichment program is a six-week summer course for children ages 6-14 that focuses on reading and community values.

Classrooms are redesigned to have a particular theme that the children incorporate into their learning module.

Each week the children are given a community theme to focus on which centers around reading material that they are tasked to learn and report about.

&uot;We recruit students from the Hertford County Public School system and local colleges to come help us during the summer,&uot; Gatling explained.

Ronica and Keedra Watford, from North Carolina Central and Chowan University respectively were on hand this summer as instructors, as was Murfreesboro’s Tia White of A&T University and Johnathan Smith of Roanoke Chowan Community College among others.

Smith, recently named student body president for the entire North Carolina Community College system, said the experience was great for him as an individual as well as a professional.

&uot;This is really great for the kids,&uot; Smith went on to say. &uot;There nothing much better that I could be doing with my summer.&uot;

The program picks up children from several designated sites throughout the county and the $40 required for the registration helps offset the costs of travel as well gives the children a few odds and ends to keep with them as mementos.

&uot;We get the children t-shirts, caps and books that they can take with them,&uot; Gatling said.

Overall, the enrichment program has proven to be well beyond its value in dollars to the students and the community as well as a model for value based educational initiatives.