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We are also working with the education, literacy and library programs of the University of Northern Iowa and Hawkeye Community College as well as literacy experts from the Waterloo Community School District to design and develop a volunteer program to allow small-group literacy interventions for students.

The school will be staffed largely by Black certified teachers as well as volunteers from area high schools and colleges. The school will open in the historic Masonic Temple in downtown Waterloo. A satellite location will open in a brand-new community center in the Black-owned ALL-IN-GROCERS, set to open in winter 2022 in the heart of Waterloo’s Black community.

To increase literacy among Black and low-income youth we need to reach them at a young age, provide continued support for those still experiencing difficulty with literacy in older grades, bridge the gap for reading learning from elementary to middle school, engage students with material that reflects their backgrounds and environments, and support them through small-group learning in a modern, beautifully designed space where everyone feels safe. 

Through critical, self-reflective practices embedded in our research and our teaching, we will work against racial, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic inequalities by creating compassionate learning spaces where students and teachers learn to use language and literacy in critical and empowering ways. 

The 1619 Freedom School will not treat our students as having deficits, but instead serve children who deserve to receive the type of support, encouragement, and empowering learning environments that will help them reach their greatest potential.

The instruction will use culturally specific books to empower students as they learn and help frame student’s literacy efforts within the historic efforts that Black Americans have undergone to gain an education under the belief that literacy leads to liberation.

It’s important that young people see themselves in the reading material in order for the materials to feel relevant. Each student will also be sent home with his or her own carefully curated multi-volume library to help support a love of books and reading for pleasure. 

Further, understanding that students who struggle with literacy often come from households with parents who struggle with literacy, we will also build supports and programming for parents.

“Why We Started The 1619 Freedom School”

Waterloo, Iowa, is a deeply segregated and unequal small midwestern town, and the most heavily Black city in the state. Waterloo had the notoriety of being named the worst city in America for Black Americans in 2018 based on unemployment rates, income disparities, homeownership and high school graduation rates and remains in the top five worst metros. The report by 24/7 Wallstreet noted: “No U.S. metro area has larger social and economic disparities along racial lines than Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa. Black metro area residents earn just 46.8% of what white area residents earn...the city’s black unemployment rate is 23.9%, well above the 13.3% nationwide black unemployment rate and the second highest such figure of any U.S. metro. Meanwhile, the area’s white unemployment rate stands at 4.4%, below the 5.9% national white unemployment rate and among the least of any city nationwide.”

And, yet, like many smaller midwestern towns with significant Black populations, Waterloo is often ignored in national conversations about inequality and overlooked when it comes to substantial investments in addressing the problems.

Literacy is the linchpin of academic success, and academic success is the linchpin of improving economic inequality. Yet Black students in Waterloo have been consistently failed. Black students account for 26 percent of Waterloo public schools students and yet account for only 13 percent of students labeled gifted. Research has linked literacy struggles with behavioral struggle and Black students in Waterloo are nearly nine times less likely to be enrolled in Advanced Placement courses than white students and yet account for half of all suspensions in the district. The average Black student in Waterloo public schools is more than two grade levels behind the average white student. Despite a gaping achievement gap, like most school districts in the nation, the Waterloo Community School District ends most literacy instruction after the third grade even though literacy experts say that students  -- especially those academically behind -- continue to need literacy instruction as they progress to the upper grades. The lack of this specialized literacy instruction compounds academic disadvantages so many of our Black students already experience so that research shows that Black students actually fall further behind the older they get.

Further, even though more than one of four Waterloo public schools students are Black, less than 5 percent of teachers self-identify as Black. Same-race teachers are associated with higher achievement, greater college enrollment and fewer absences while reducing the likelihood of dropout. A study led by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University found that Black students who had just one black teacher by the third grade were 13 percent more likely to attend college and those who had two or more Black educators were 32 percent more likely to enroll in college.

An intensive intervention is needed for Black and low-income students in the district. The 1619 Freedom School will work collaboratively with the Waterloo Community Schools District but operate independently.

Our children deserve better, so we will give them better.

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