Tech’s first Freedom School wraps up with grand finale

Tennessee Tech’s Emma Hettsmansberger interacts with students during the Children's Defense Fund Freedom School grand finale on July 23 at Jere Whitson Elementary School.

COOKEVILLE – The students sang, danced, played a ukulele and acted out their favorite story in the grand finale of the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School on Tuesday at Jere Whitson Elementary School.

Operated the past six weeks by Tennessee Tech’s College of Education, the Freedom School served as a literacy and cultural enrichment program for 30 children, kindergarten through fourth grade, from the Cookeville community.

“For us to have an opportunity to host a Freedom School here at Jere Whitson with Tennessee Tech as our sponsor is an important asset for Tennessee Tech,” said Janet Isbell, an associate professor at Tech and executive director of the Freedom School. “It has so exceeded any expectations I have had.”

The Freedom School program, which began on June 12, helped students engage in a student-centered, high-energy environment promoting literacy, love of learning and civic engagement.

“The kids have been engaged in reading books and they have had opportunities for culture enrichment,” said Isbell. “They have been able to get out in the community and experience things they never would have been able to if they were sitting at home this summer. The best part about to it is to smiles on their faces and books in their hands.”

Tech has played a major role in coordinating and leading the Freedom School program. Amber Spears, an assistant professor and literacy expert at Tech, served as program director while Tech graduate student Lindsey Braisted served as the site coordinator with Kristen Williams, Emma Hettmansberger and Lindsey Sparkman serving as servant leader interns. 

“As soon as I heard what the program was about and things they were going to be doing with these kids, I couldn’t rest until I was part of it,” said Braisted, a native of Maryville, who is studying to become a reading specialist. “It was an incredible experience.”

The experience wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the community. The funding for the 30 participants was $40,000, which included all costs for the program and the staffing.

“We had to raise all of those funds for the program,” said Isbell. “The community has been so responsive. We have had dozens and dozens of contributors, in-kind donations and volunteers. The community really stepped up.”

During the program, students enjoyed a wide range of enrichment experiences which included art, music, gardening, science, technology, engineering and mathematics activities. The children took home new books each week of the program to build their personal libraries, while parents and caregivers were offered opportunities to participate in Monday night family events with Friday afternoons reserved for field trips. Breakfast and lunch for the children were provided throughout the six-week program.

“We had 10 students for every teacher, so we got to know the students and their families,” said Braisted. “We got to know what they like and what they dislike. Getting to work with them was a great. It was like we were one big family.”

Since 1995, more than 150,000 children in grades pre-kindergarten through 12 have participated in the CDF Freedom Schools experience, and more than 17,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the delivery of the CDF Freedom Schools model. Isbell believes this is a program that will continue in the Cookeville community.

“We are already planning for next year,” Isbell said. “We will be out in the community asking for support again. We will be back next year.”

To learn more about the Children’s Defense Fund and the Freedom Schools program, go to

Students showed off their ukelele skills during the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School grand finale on July 23 at Jere Whitson Elementary.

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