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"1619 Project" Creator Establishes Freedom School in IA

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Thursday, September 2, 2021   

WATERLOO, Iowa -- Disadvantaged students in one of Iowa's largest cities will get the chance to build reading skills through a more robust telling of Black American history.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, received acclaim for her initiative with The New York Times called the 1619 Project. The 2019 essay was inspired by the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans sold into English colonies.

A separate effort called 1619 Freedom School is now coming to Hannah-Jones' hometown of Waterloo.

She said the free after-school program is a way to give back to the community, especially for students who haven't been given opportunities to thrive.

"I think this intervention is necessary because we can just look at the test scores of Black students, particularly low-income Black students in Waterloo, as compared to white students, and see there's a failure happening somewhere," Hannah-Jones contended.

State data showed the graduation rate for Black high school students in Waterloo is 76%, below the statewide average of 91%.

Freedom School does not use government funding and combines local educators with community leaders in identifying younger, marginalized students for the program. It follows Iowa's adoption of a law that bans curriculum deemed controversial, such as Critical Race Theory, even though many observers note that theory isn't taught in most K-12 schools.

Hannah-Jones pointed out there is a lot of intentional misinformation surrounding the debate over Critical Race Theory and the pushback against expanding the teaching of Black history. She stressed her initiative has nothing to do with race theory found in college classrooms. She's focused on inspiring younger Black students.

"The research actually is pretty clear on this, that Black students who are exposed to Black history do better academically," Hannah-Jones explained.

She added while they aim to reach Black students who are struggling with reading, the program is available to all students. There are no current plans for Freedom Schools elsewhere in Iowa, but Hannah-Jones stated she hopes leaders in other communities replicate the program.


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