Studying education at Miami University of Ohio, Tambra Jackson, who grew up in Indiana, was the only African-American in many of her education classes. She felt that something was missing in her preparation, and when she attended a meeting about Freedom Schools being launched in Cincinnati, she immediately realized what it was.
“They said they were targeting underprivileged children, and I wanted to be part of that.” She knew she wanted to teach children who were marginalized but felt her program, geared to White, middle class, monolingual children, was not preparing her to do that.
Much of what she saw that first exhilarating summer in 1995 as a teacher or Servant Leader Intern as they are called in Freedom Schools impressed her—the books that reflected the children and their lives, the opportunities the children had to move around, release and channel energy, the emphasis on the interns being well prepared, and especially, the empowerment curriculum—“I can make a difference”— geared to both the college students and the children.
When she got back to college, her professors said, “What happened to you?” “I was very vocal that we needed to be more multicultural and social justice oriented.” Tambra, who has since managed two Freedom Schools, became convinced that its methods should be used in public education and that teacher education should be more like Freedom Schools training. “We have done a deep disservice to children of color and poor children in this country by not getting their education right.”
When Tambra went to graduate school at Michigan State University after six years of teaching, her research project looked at Freedom Schools training. “I was curious as to how CDF was able to take young people from diverse backgrounds and in one week teach them to deliver the curriculum in an impactful way when colleges often can’t do this in four years.”
One reason, she found, is giving the college students the same experience at the training that they are expected to give to the children by being loved, cared for and empowered at Haley Farm. They also are given information about realities in the communities where the children live, from gun violence to lack of health care. “About 85 percent of the teaching force in this country is white middle class and female, most of whom haven’t experienced these realities and aren’t taught about them.” The emphasis on servant leadership is crucial, she says.
Since 2006, Tambra has been an associate professor of education at the University of South Carolina, and she is practicing what she has been preaching. Among other initiatives, she partnered with a predominately Black local school and teaches some of her courses there. Her students observe the school’s experienced teachers and get to know the children. Others do their student teaching there. After four years, the school earned a national award for academic improvement, and many of Tambra’s students have chosen to teach in urban and diverse schools.