Oakland Probation Camp Offers Freedom School to Young Detainees
BY JILL TUCKER | San Francisco Chronicle
The nearly three dozen teenage boys — laughing, dancing, chanting and singing — didn’t look like robbers, car thieves or vandals. They looked like goofy kids at summer camp.
In fact, it was a camp, a probation camp. The youths were required to be there, most assigned by a judge to spend six to nine months at the Alameda County minimum-security detention center, Camp Wilmont Sweeney.
They weren’t allowed to leave. But the smiles, the singing and the dancing? That was Freedom School.
In recent years, the Freedom School, a national summer or after-school literacy program with roots in the civil rights movement, has found a place in probation camps, tailoring the instruction and books to juvenile offenders, many of whom have had little success in school or community.
Freedom Schools, resurrected in the 1990s by the Children’s Defense Fund, focus on building self-esteem and a love of learning by connecting with the communities and backgrounds of the often low-income students. There are 34 Freedom School programs in California, with a handful in probation camps.
Camp Sweeney administrators held a six-week pilot program last year, and veteran juvenile probation officers said they’d never seen anything like it.
‘It’s pretty special’
Dale Tafoya, Camp Sweeney institutional supervisor, shook his head as he watched the boys fling their arms around each other as they participated in the daily Freedom School Harambee, a 30-minute gathering that includes cheers and chants, a motivational song, and announcements to begin the day.
“They have all bought into it,” Tafoya said. “It’s pretty special.”
Boys who might be enemies on the streets were dancing, their arms intertwined, their juvenile institutional officers dancing, too. The youths sang, “Something inside so strong. I know that I can make it. ... You thought that my pride was gone. Oh no, oh no, there’s something inside so strong.”
When the song ended, Tafoya shook his head again. “You don’t see this,” he said. “This shows you it’s possible.”
The “it” is the youths’ sense of hope and confidence, things they typically lacked when they were arrested, convicted and sentenced to juvenile hall before their stint at the camp in San Leandro.
LaDonna Harris, the county’s chief probation officer, saw the shift in the boys during last year’s pilot program. She set aside $100,000 to pay for the program. Then she found an additional $60,000 to send 12 of her juvenile justice campers to visit historic civil rights sites in the South and Los Angeles.
Harris said some have criticized the expense, saying these boys don’t deserve a special summer camp or a trip across the country at taxpayer expense. Harris’ eyes turn steely as she recounts such conversations with community members.
These boys will go back to the community eventually, she said, and Freedom School has ensured that “when they go back, they’re a different person than when they came.”
Love of reading
When Justo arrived at Camp Sweeney this year, he was behind in school. He never read books. Now, with Freedom School ending Thursday, he has caught up on credits and loves to read. And, the street feuds that put some of the boys in the juvenile justice system now seem silly, he said.
“I’m over here with somebody if I was on the outside I would consider an enemy to me,” he said. “That’s just tearing our race and the community apart. That’s what I realized here.”
During the regular school year, Camp Sweeney students work at their own pace, working on whatever coursework they need to graduate high school. Officers are always present to make sure there are no problems. At Freedom School, the kids work on the same curriculum, read the same books — mostly about the struggles of young people — and create art projects. The institutional officers sing with them and sit in on group discussions and with the art projects.
Hunter, 16, was sent to Camp Sweeney at the beginning of the summer. He had a “1,000-pound” chip on his shoulder, he said, most of it related to his dad’s absence in his life.
“My motto was, I came here alone, I’m going to leave alone,” he said.
Bonds formed quickly
That didn’t last long. Hunter quickly formed bonds. He joined class discussions about books they read. His teachers encouraged him to write things down, especially about his dad. He did, and the 1,000 pounds lifted, Hunter said.
He is now on track to finish high school early, and then he wants to go to barber school. First, he has to finish the months left on his Camp Sweeney sentence. He’s OK with that.
“You can be free wherever you are,” said Brooklyn Williams, of the Lincoln Child Center and the Camp Sweeney Freedom School director. “Hunter is more free in here than he was out there.
View the original story here.