The secret to closing the learning gap

Date Posted: 8/12/2021

By Lindsay Peyton
Children will return to school more prepared this fall, after attending HYPE Freedom School in the summer at churches in the Texas Annual Conference. The program just wrapped up and is designed to combat the summer slide -- the loss of learning that occurs during vacation from school.
While summer vacation only lasts a couple of months, studies show young students can be drastically set back, if they do not attend quality summer programs. HYPE Freedom School founder Brandi Brown explained, “If you have the resources, to put your kid in a program, it pays to play.”
Many parents, however, lack the ability to enroll their children in courses over the summer. That’s where HYPE Freedom School comes in – and their host churches in the TAC.
“Summer is a critical time to create a level playing field for our children,” Brown said. “We are able to offer high level programming to children no matter what their income. Our goal is to excite, motivate and ignite the love of learning.”
That’s a mission that UMCs are eager to adopt. The Rev. Thaddeus Eastland, senior pastor at HOPE Church Pearland, has hosted the program in the past.
“HYPE Freedom School serves children who most need and yet can least afford summer learning opportunities,” he explained. “The summer learning gap is very real and immensely debilitating for poor children and their ability to compete for better lives.”
At HOPE Church, advocacy for the young and the marginalized is essential, Eastland continued. “The HYPE Freedom School provided a natural partnership to advocate through action. It has been our honor to serve,” he said.
HYPE Freedom school, available for students in Kindergarten through 12th grade, last for six weeks. The program is dedicated to building literacy and offering cultural enrichment.
There are also workshops designed to empower parents. “We help our parents and offer the support they need,” Brown said. “They are their children’s advocates.”
In addition, the program connects families with therapists. During the pandemic, Brown built support groups for parents. “It gave us an opportunity to have open dialogues,” she said.
During the school year, HYPE Freedom School provides experiential learning opportunities – as well as books for young scholars to start their own home libraries.
With COVID-19, books and all the supplies required for the program were provided by mail in “HYPE in a Box.” The program pivoted to a virtual format, and remained online this summer because of the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Brown knows firsthand the importance of a summer program. “Being raised by a single mother, I remember how hard it was for her to think through what she would do with us during the summer,” Brown recalled. “She always wanted us to go to a summer program but could never afford it.”
Then, her aunt created her own camp for children in the family and hosted the group in her apartment. It’s an experience that Brown recalls fondly.
Years later, as a student at Southern Methodist University, Brown discovered a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School in the area. She spent two summers working in the program and felt a sense of purpose there.
After graduating in 1999, Brown returned to her hometown of Houston. “When I first started doing this work, it really was a life saver for me,” she said. “I was introduced to Freedom Schools in college, and it gave me such life. I knew that I wanted to do something like it in Houston, but I didn’t know how it was.”
She told her family about the idea to start her own Freedom School. “They all pitched in money, and we got started,” she said. “This was the calling God had in my life.”
For the first 13 years, Brown held a program at her home church Pisidia Missionary Baptist Church. By 2014, however, the program was outgrowing the space. “We didn’t really have the infrastructure to support our growth,” she said.
Brown searched for resources to build the capacity of her organization, attended a leadership development program at Rice University and created a strategic plan. “What would it look like if we partnered with other organizations?” she wondered.
The first organization that accepted the challenge was The City of Houston Health Department's My Brother's Keeper, an initiative designed to break barriers and create opportunities for boys and young men of color.
Before long, one location grew into four for HYPE Freedom Schools. Then, Brown began working with churches that wanted to start a program. “Our first church to partner as a mentor was Faith UMC,” she recalled.
Westbury UMC followed. Then, the Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley, who was leading Blueridge UMC at the time, called. She wanted to start a Freedom School at her church, and the Permanent Endowment Fund at Moody UMC provided its financial underpinning.  
That became a lasting partnership, and Malone-Wardley introduced Brown to the Texas Annual Conference. Jill Daniel, Director of We Love All God’s Children, and District Superintendent Vincent Harris became actively involved.
Before long, four different UMCs were housing Freedom Schools, including Blueridge, Jones Memorial, Hope Church Pearland and McCabe Roberts in Beaumont. Recently, Ebenezer UMC has provided support for the virtual summer program, and Moody UMC came on board to help with the session in Galveston.
Freedom Schools were born out of the Civil Rights movement, Brown explained. In the 1960s, the Freedom Schools were developed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to offer African American students greater educational opportunities. 
The Children’s Defense Fund then resurrected the concept in the 1990s. With the organization’s help, there are 181 program sites in 28 states and 97 cities.
In Houston, Brown said the partnership with UMC helped provide her with the confidence needed to continue. “We had their support and backing,” she explained. “The churches trust us to do this work, the work that God has called us to do. He gives each and every one a little piece, to be able to address the big puzzle.”
Today, Freedom Schools provide the formula, and churches in the Conference provide the space and volunteers. Together, they work to help children succeed, Brown explained. 
“Families continue to grow with each other and break barriers,” she said. “We didn’t know how we would break them, but we’ve broken them together.”

Churches make an ideal partner in this endeavor for a number of reasons, Brown explained. “Churches are the heart of our community,” she said. “It’s the perfect place for us, and it opens the church to a community that sometimes would drive by their doors every day. We’re able to connect families to a faith community in a way that’s not the traditional Sunday service.”
During the year, families often remain connected to the church where their Freedom School was housed. “They know there’s a safe space where they can go, no matter what’s going on in their lives,” Brown said.
The Texas Annual Conference also provides a portion of the funding for the program, which Brown estimates costs about $1,300 per child for the six-week experience.
She is looking for churches that want to host HYPE on campus or even sponsor the program at a site where the need is greater.
Ultimately, Brown explained that HYPE is designed to strengthen young scholars and provide them hope. “It’s about having them come through our doors and walk out believing they can accomplish and do whatever they want,” she said.
Children gain confidence in the program. “They have something inside of them that’s so strong. They’re able to accomplish whatever they want,” Brown said.
And they learn that school is a tool that will help them on the path for success. “Summer for many of our youth, it’s the way they get excited about learning,” Brown said. “They leave the summer excited about the school year.”