The Pine Bluff School District is expanding the Freedom Schools initiative in response to students achieving success over this past summer. This initiative's mission is to curb summer learning loss and close the achievement gap. The district began a pilot program in the summer that enrolled 120 at-risk Pine Bluff students and it proved successful with students improving their reading comprehension.

As a result, the initiative will enroll 150 students beginning Monday, Oct. 9, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and continuing indefinitely. It will operate using the Children's Defense Fund's program model.

Pine Bluff School District instructional technology and innovation specialist Zach Lewis detailed the Freedom Schools Initiative Thursday at the district's First Ward Building. University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff students who are majoring in education are teaching under the guidance of Pine Bluff School District educators.

“The program was a huge success,” Lewis said. “Of all students that we had, they all increased at least three to five reading levels over the summer. Their attitudes toward school has changed. Many of them have started this current school year very strong with good academics. Some students who were in special education receiving services no longer receive services because of how successful they were in the program. We have now expanded Freedom Schools to have after-school programming and out-of-school programming when school is closed to make sure those kids have the same opportunities throughout the year.”

Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Michael Robinson credited Lewis for the program's success and joined him to cut a ribbon Thursday at the First Ward School to mark the opening of the district's Freedom Schools facility and program expansion. They were joined by fellow educators including Pine Bluff School District Systemic Improvement and Teaching and Learning Officer Alesia Smith and the Pine Bluff Area Chamber of Commerce Redcoats.

“We are aligned with everything they are doing during the day,” Lewis said. “They get homework support, additional instruction centered around reading, mathematics and all the STEAM disciplines, and mentorship and field trips to expose them to the community like we did during the summer.”

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Board President Henry Dabner credited Lewis for making a major difference in improving the education of students. Dabner wishes he could have 50 educators in the mold of Lewis.

“I think Zach has done an awesome job bringing the Freedom Schools to Pine Bluff,” Dabner said. “The parents and students asked us can we do this during the school year. I was so excited that everybody else was excited about the program because it is sometimes so hard to satisfy people. But those kids love it. But we've got to do whatever we can as a community to educate kids.

“Zach shows he cares for our kids and I appreciate him for putting in the time and the work. Zach is active, he is engaged, and he brings something new.”

The Pine Bluff School District enrolls about 3,816 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, Dabner said. He expects the Freedom Schools to increase enrollment.

The initiative will operate using the Children's Defense Fund's national program model including the Integrated Reading Curriculum. The district is partnering with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Jefferson Regional Medical Center. They are taking field trips to state parks and using the JRMC gym.

“They are learning science and geographical lessons of how Arkansas is the state it became,” Lewis said. “Of course there will be fun trips. We will go skating, we will go bowling, we will go to the movies, we will go to theme parks. It is designed to give them an outlet because many students do not have parents who can afford to give them these opportunities.”

Lewis gave a tour of the classrooms while pointing out the chairs are arranged in a circle to facilitate conversation.

“It gets all the students talking about academics, so when students are sitting in a circle they are sitting across from each other, there is no way they can zone out or tune out,” Lewis said. “They have to be engaged. The whole key is to teach children to be engaged so when they are in their classrooms during the regular day, they are not afraid or shy to answer questions. They are better participants.”