Evelyn Oliveira and Bill Stanfield's Metanoi Project in the Chicora neighborhood will expand this summer into a Freedom School
More than 40 years ago, Septima Clark ran "Citizenship Schools" throughout the South. Her curriculum stressed reading, writing, and a knowledge of state laws to help blacks pass the "literacy test" necessary to vote. A Charleston native, Clark is considered by some to be the "grandmother of the Civil Rights movement."
The principles set forth by her unprecedented social work still survive today in Freedom Schools, literacy rich summer programs endorsed by the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. This summer, the first Freedom School in N. Charleston will be opened and run by two Princeton seminary graduates who have one eye on the future.
After earning master's degrees in divinity, the Revs. Bill Stanfield and Evelyn Oliveira just wanted to go where they were needed, and, in 2003, they found a small, overlooked community in N. Charleston that certainly had needs. The Chicora/Cherokee neighborhood suffers from the blight of high poverty and crime rates. Nearly 98 percent of the elementary school's student body lives below the poverty line, according to the school's front office.
Their Freedom School this summer will continue the work of Septima Clark, but with a modern twist. By using education to allow children to improve their lots in life, Stanfield and Oliveira are building on Clark's legacy.
Three years ago, the young married couple moved in and established a community outreach program dubbed Metanoia, an offspring of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. They run the program from the nearby N. Charleston's St. Matthew Baptist Church and aim to bring residents of the Chicora/Cherokee neighborhood together to discuss community challenges and develop untapped resources.
"We need to look at the community through its assets, not its deficits," says Stanfield. When the couple arrived, Chicora Elementary School was on the verge of closing, due to lack of funds and poor performance. Now, Chicora's PTA is entirely parent-led, and the school was recently recognized as making "adequate progress" by the Charleston County School Board. Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson mentioned Chicora's progress in her recent State of Our Schools address.
"All you have to do is walk in the door to see and feel the change,' said Goodloe-Johnson in her speech. "The students are excelling, teachers are better equipped to teach, and the leadership knows what it takes to make the learning environment just that — one for learning."
Every day after school, 30 Chicora students meet on the church's third floor for Metanoia's Young Leaders Program, where they are provided with opportunities for learning and leadership. The space is colorful, inviting, and when the children are there, loud.
Encouraging posters are everywhere, touting Metanoia's bedrock principles that the children are special, important, and able to make a difference. "We drill that into them every day," says Oliveira.
"I like Metanoia because it makes me smart," says 9-year-old young leader Ally*. Her classmate Jeremy*, 8, agrees. "I do better in school, and I make new friends here."
Metanoia asks teachers to recommend one boy and one girl from each grade who are already considered leaders. By focusing tutoring sessions on children already showing leadership in the classroom, the program is able to positively influence their classmates as well. "What the students learn here will trickle down," says Stanfield. "We can affect an entire classroom by reaching just one child."
This focus on education and after-school care is what led Oliveira to discover Freedom Schools. She visited a Freedom School program in Philadelphia and was stunned. "It was such a positive morning that I spent there," she says. "There are no words to describe it."
Now, the entire Philadelphia school system runs Freedom Schools each year. Oliveira and Stanfield applied through the Children's Defense Fund to run their own Freedom School in conjunction with Metanoia. They were approved, and Chicora/Cherokee's first Freedom School will be held this summer, with 50 students.
Coincidentally, this is the first year that Chicora Elementary will not be offering a summer program, making Metanoia's program that much more necessary. According to the fund, a child who does not read during the summer loses one-third of the previous grade's learning.
Adding to the problem, most Chicora children come from working class families, with parents who work during the day while kids are out of school. "It's such a challenge," says Stanfield. "It's like taking two steps back for every one step forward."
Stanfield and Oliveira plan to combat this backslide with an academic curriculum written by the fund and targeted at certain grades. "We're not teachers, but we can tutor," says Oliveira. "That huge piece of work of creating a curriculum is already done for us.
"We've had a good program before," she says of Metanoia, noting that the extra money and students this summer "will take it to the level of an excellent program."
"It's a leap of faith, going from 30 to 50 kids," says Stanfield. "This is very new territory."
Along with tutoring, the Freedom School will provide games, hot meals, field trips, books for every child, and all-day supervision for five weeks.
When it comes to fund-raising, Stanfield says, "It's a matter of Evelyn and I getting the word out." Much of Metanoia's money comes from grants, but the program also relies on donations.
So far, they have raised about $8,000 toward the Freedom School program. The actual cost for 50 children is $41,650, although the program is only asking for $30,000. "We're not just asking for money," says Stanfield. "We're inviting people to become a part of a movement to make our world a better place. We're all in this together."
Metanoia was also recently approved by the South Carolina Department of Commerce to offer donors State Community Development Tax Credits. For every dollar a South Carolina resident donates to Metanoia, 33 cents may be reduced from every dollar owed in state income tax.
To donate to Metanoia's Freedom School, visit www.pushingforward.org, or call the Revs. Bill Stanfield and Evelyn Oliveira at 529-3014.