Black Lives Matter youth program for Aurora, Denver sees surge of students

Black Lives Matter 5280 nutrition coach Joslyn Reese teaches Freedom School students how to create apple nachos during the 2020 virtual session this year. PHOTO COURTESY OF BLACK LIVES MATTER 5280

AURORA | The  “Freedom School,” run by local Black Lives Matter proponents for Black students, spiked in interest last week while enjoying support from Denver-based foundations, organizers said. 

Organizers from the local Black Lives Matter 5280 branch say the third year of Freedom School reached about 50 students, mostly from Aurora and Denver during a weeklong program that ended Friday. That’s about double the cohort size last summer, according to the group. 

During the one-week enrichment program, Black teachers work with an all-Black group of students to teach them about ancient African history and combat negative public treatment they say harms Black students in public schools. 

This year, the free summer program was conducted virtually because of pandemic conditions. 

Michael Diaz-Rivera, a Denver teacher and activist, said more families enrolled their students in part because of heightened interest in racial equity issues following the death of George Floyd in May. 

“To see the support we’ve been seeing right now, and the interest, it makes me hopeful,” he said. 

Freedom School co-founder Branta Lockett shaped the program three years ago while working as a teacher in Denver Public Schools.

She said the Black-focused program was born to address a demographic mismatch between teachers and students. Nationally and in Aurora, school districts have ramped up efforts to hire more non-white teachers to diversify staff ranks. 

Organizers say the demographic disparity hurts Black youth, rendering a Black-specific program a necessity for students. Lockett said she has regularly taught alongside mostly white staff and endured subtle bigotry that she knew trickled down to Black students, Lockett said. 

For instance, she saw white teachers complain that Black students were “loud” in class, even though they normally talked that way at home. 

“This kid was getting in trouble for doing something he had always done,” Lockett said of one student who frequently spoke out. 

Freedom School also specifically teaches students African history they likely wouldn’t receive in their normal schools. Ancient African civilizations are on the list.

Diaz-Rivera also taught a segment about how national flags can be both controversial and powerful symbols. Part of that topic involved scrutinizing why the U.S. flag is dubbed the “American” flag, even though there are so many other countries on the American continents, he told the Sentinel. 

The program has also put students in contact with Black nutritionists, librarians, community leaders and even a Black Tai-Chi instructor to show the children that “there is no ceiling for them,” Lockett said.

Plus, every student hauls in school supplies and free lunch. This year, that meant delivering food directly to families’ front door.

Freedom School doesn’t cost a dime for the families that sign up. To pay for the program, organizers have tapped into a network of Denver-based education foundations shaping Aurora’s education landscape with more programs and charter schools for Black and low-income Aurora students. 

The project recently shared a fundraising drive through Moonshot edVentures. The nonprofit cultivates charter school, education and social justice program ideas and offers fellowships to area educators. Programs produced by Moonshot include Empower Community High School, a charter school in Aurora Public Schools, as well as Aurora Community School. Last month, APS shut down ACS after budget issues, lack of space and chaos characterized its first year, former teachers have said. 

Visions Performing Arts College Prep co-founder Auset Maryam Ali was also a Moonshot fellow. That charter school was slated to open its doors in August, but school staff delayed the opening date one year because of the pandemic. 

Lockett also said Freedom School received funding from Denver-based Donnell Kay Foundation’s Reschool initiative. Donnell Kay has involved itself in projects with charter schools and local school districts and has also contributed to Moonshot, according to Moonshot’s website. 

The Margulf Foundation also contributed dollars, Lockett said. That group helped fund Aurora Community School and Empower Community High School, according to record requests made by the Sentinel.