MC students intern at Freedom School

MC students intern at Freedom School

Sept. 7, 2018 

Five Maryville College students recently helped instill a love of reading in Blount County children through the county’s first Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School, a six-week-long summer enrichment program with three hours of reading per day.

Freedom Schools typically operate in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, too expensive or non-existent. They’re designed to help children and youth fall in love with reading, increase their self-esteem, cultivate positive attitudes toward learning and reduce summer reading loss.

Amy Gilliland, director of community engagement at Maryville College, said two schools in Knox County have hosted the Freedom School program.

“They decided this year to expand into Alcoa,” she said.

Maryville College posted the information seeking applicants for the program, reaching out to students who were interested in education, advocacy and working with marginalized populations. The students went through an interview process before being chosen as servant leader interns (SLIs) to work with the young scholars.

Freedom School provides 90 hours of reading over six weeks; offers afternoon activities such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), communications, fitness, music, art and dance; broadens exposure with field trips; builds character and increases the scholar’s self-esteem; promotes parent, family and community involvement and development; and cultivates civic engagement and social action.

“It’s primarily to prevent summer reading loss and promote love of learning, but it’s also about becoming thoughtful and engaged citizens,” Gilliland said.

Education, civic engagement

Denise Dean is the project director for the East Knoxville Freedom School.

“The first Freedom School in East Tennessee was last year in Knoxville,” she said. “One of our servant leader interns was from this area, so he was committed to having a Freedom School in Blount County. When we identified our location, we had to find staff, and our staff is college students. It made perfect sense to go to Maryville College.”

SLIs were both aspiring and past graduates of Maryville College, majoring in child development and learning as well as neuroscience, psychology, writing communications and English.

“We don’t need folks who are education majors,” Dean added. “We need folks who love and like children.”

Freedom Schools were started by the Children’s Defense Fund 23 years ago.

“They were built on the model of the Freedom Schools of the civil rights era when folks went to the South to help people learn how to get better educated and step into their rights as citizens to vote,” Dean explained. “Freedom School today is built on that model in terms of, one, we want children to fall in love with reading – we want to reduce or eliminate summer learning loss. Education is the key to civic engagement, so in addition to helping with literacy and academics in general, the literature that we read with the children is all steeped in this notion that ‘I can make a difference.’”

Each year, a National Day of Social Action allows the scholars to put what they have learned into practice.

“This year, the focus was on voting due to the midterm elections,” Dean said, explaining that the day was celebrated in Blount County with the scholars setting up a booth at the Blount County Public Library to encourage voter registration and make patrons aware of the issues.

MC students get involved

Five MC students were SILs in Blount County, while one interned in Knoxville.

Junior Ashley Berry ’20 is majoring in psychology with a concentration in counseling and also has minors in gender and women’s studies and sociology. Her work with Freedom Schools was inspired by a quote from Ayesha Siddiqi: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

“This internship has completely changed my life, for sure,” Berry said.

In addition to learning skills such as networking, she sees the difference she has made in the lives of the scholars.

“One way I feel I’ve made an impact on these kids is that I try to put myself in their shoes and relate to them as much as I possibly can,” she said. “I relate my life stories and my life experiences so they feel comfortable opening up to me.”

Building relationships with the scholars with something as simple as a smile, a hello and calling the scholar by name can make a huge difference in their lives, Berry said.

Joyce Coling ’18, a Brazilian who graduated in May with a major in neuroscience, was interested in becoming a SLI because she loves to learn about new cultures. She found that her liberal arts education helped her answer the scholars’ questions.

“By the end of the summer, [the scholars] were a lot happier about grabbing a book by themselves and reading, like they enjoyed doing that,” she said. “I feel like that was something I really achieved over the summer, getting those kids to believe more in themselves, that they can go to college, they can get a job, they can grow in life. That’s something I’m really proud of.”

Caroline Kelley ’19 is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and plans to attend physicians assistant school after earning her bachelor’s degree. As a Bonner Scholar, involvement with a nonprofit organization is one of the requirements.

“Children’s Defense Fund is a nonprofit that I’m really passionate about,” Kelley said. “I love children.”

She also praised the liberal arts education she’s receiving from Maryville College in giving her a well-rounded education.

“It gets us ready for the real world after we graduate,” she said.

Shoshana Overstreet ’20 is an English literature major with a child development and learning minor at Maryville College, and her career goal is to one day work in the children’s book publishing industry.

Janelle Piper graduated magna cum laude from the College in December. Majoring in writing communication and minoring in political science, she also earned certification as a nonprofit professional before graduating. She is pursuing a career in public policy to work as an advocate for those in marginalized communities.

“Education is where it starts,” Piper said of the Freedom Schools. “The basis of this work is basically supporting what they don’t usually have in a public-school education, helping them affirm who they are and motivating them to learn and think deeper about what they learn.”

Senior Gabriella Chavarria ’19 is a child development and learning major at Maryville College whose career goals include becoming a licensed social worker and continuing to work with local non-profits to make a difference in the community. She was an SIL at the East Knoxville site.

Gilliland said the mission of Maryville College is “to prepare students for lives of citizenship and leadership as we challenge each one to search for truth, grow in wisdom, work for justice and dedicate a life of creativity and service to the peoples of the world.”

“That is what this opportunity to work with the Freedom Schools is about,” she said. “I’m excited to have this here in our community. I hope that it continues and expands to reach even more children and families in our community.”

Written by Linda Braden Albert for Maryville College


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,146.