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Freedom School day begins with the “Harambee”Mornings at L.A. County's juvenile detention facilities don't typically start with probation officers firing up youth with cheers, chants and songs.

But over five weeks this summer, young offenders and rival gang members were encouraged to give each other high-fives and shout-outs as part of a pilot literacy program.

Called "Freedom Schools," the program developed by the Children's Defense Fund offers a unique approach to engaging and motivating students. A highlight is the "Harambee" (Swahili for "let's pull together"), a daily morning gathering that features a read-aloud guest and high-energy activities to build self-esteem and positive attitudes toward learning.

While the Freedom Schools approach has benefited tens of thousands of children nationwide since its founding in 1995, it was piloted for the first time this summer with incarcerated youth in California at the impetus of L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

LACOE was a proud partner in the effort with CDF, the Supervisor's office and the Probation Department to test the approach at its schools serving 160 young men detained at Camp Afflerbaugh in La Verne and Camp Miller in Malibu during the summer session from June 24 to July 26.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (c) led the effort to bring Freedom Schools to probation facilitiesEleven LACOE teachers and five administrators traveled to Tennessee this past spring to take part in special training at the CDF's Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute.

Though a formal evaluation has yet to be completed, administrators and faculty report positive results, including a 93 percent reduction in school suspensions and disciplinary actions. Young offenders previously uninterested in reading were motivated to finish novels for the first time in their lives.

"The program has increased students' engagement in school and also helped strengthen the relationship between LACOE and Probation," said Perry Wiseman, LACOE director of Student Programs. "We're planning to implement the program at additional schools next summer."

The Freedom Schools pilot is part of countywide education reform to improve outcomes for incarcerated youth that is being led by LACOE Superintendent Arturo Delgado in partnership with the Probation Department. The reform effort is focused on alternative and innovative ways to reach and teach students who have not been successful with traditional classroom instruction.

Read the story by L.A. Times education reporter Teresa Watanabe by clicking here. The story prompted a tweet by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Watch a Spanish-language news story on KMEX-Ch. 34 by clicking here.

Photo 1: The Freedom Schools day begins with the "Harambee" gathering at Camp Afflerbaugh in La Verne.

Photo 2: County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (c) led the effort to bring Freedom Schools to two juvenile probation facilities. He celebrated the success of the program at Camp Afflerbaugh with students and (l-r) LACOE Supt. Arturo Delgado, Asst. Principal Jennifer Miller, Principal Jennifer Flores and Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers.
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