It is a hot, energy-sapping morning on a quiet residential street, but inside the Lynwood United Methodist Church, summer school students are raising the roof with inspirational chants, boogie-down dances and affirmations of friendship.
There is a good-morning greeting, shouted by the teachers: "Freedom School, how you feelin'?"
"Fantastic, terrific, great all day long!" the group of about 35 children bellows in response.
It is part of a start-of-day ritual of song, dance, meditation and sharing of experiences called harambee, a Swahili word meaning "let's pull together."
And for the Lynwood students, the joy of learning inspired by the morning's pulse of energy does indeed last all day long.
The children are among 200 Los Angeles students getting an intensive lesson in reading and loving books during a six- week summer literacy program rooted in the civil rights movement.
The elementary and middle school students are enrolled in what are known as Freedom Schools, an initiative developed by the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit child advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The program, which started in 1995, is modeled after efforts in Mississippi and other Southern states in the 1960s to educate African Americans still encumbered by separate and unequal school systems.
The free program seeks to engage students socially and culturally with a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking, conflict resolution, social action, healthful eating, creativity in the arts and physical and mental health. Parental participation is required, and many assist in the classroom, provide snacks and chaperone field trips.
During the 8 a.m.-to-3 p.m. program period, children receive breakfast, lunch and snacks. The afternoons are devoted to sports, presentations by outside speakers and field trips.
Last week, the students visited Compton/Woodley Airport, where they took rides in planes piloted by young African Americans who are part of a pilot training program. It was the first time on a plane for some students, said project director Cassandra Chase.
They have also visited the Natural History Museum, learned how to write their names in Chinese script and written letters to civic leaders about health insurance.
The children get to keep the books they read, "an opportunity for them to start their own library," Chase said.
This summer, more than 9,600 children are participating in Freedom Schools at more than 140 sites around the country. Each site pays for books, food, field trips and stipends for staff, amounting to about $60,000 for the six weeks, according to the Children's Defense Fund.
The schools, usually hosted by churches, have operated in Long Beach and Pasadena for several years. This summer, for the first time, the program has expanded to five new sites in Los Angeles, Culver City and Lynwood, with funding support of $150,000 from the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
"There is a strong emphasis on literacy, and that struck me as valuable," said Ridley-Thomas, who was introduced to the Freedom School concept by Children's Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman. Last year, Ridley-Thomas visited the Tennessee farm of the late Pulitzer Prize winning author Alex Haley — property now owned by the fund — where Freedom School instructors are trained.
The Freedom School teachers of the civil rights era were mostly college students, and that is still the case. The young instructors receive a week's training before fanning out to schools around the nation.
The Lynwood site is sponsored by the nonprofit Urban Lights Initiative, a youth empowerment group. Joy Masha, 24, the site coordinator, said the biggest challenge is time.
"You have six weeks to get them out of their box, shed their shyness and understand what Freedom Schools are all about," said Masha, who will start graduate studies at Cal State Fullerton in the fall majoring in educational leadership. "You just hope the concepts and values they learn here don't leave them during the school year."
At a time when test scores show a persistent achievement gap between white students and black and Latino students, proponents say literacy efforts like Freedom Schools can improve outcomes. A recent study of two Freedom Schools programs by the Institute for Social Capital at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that second- through fifth-graders improved their ability to read.
The heart of the program is reading, and student tackle several books each week. They read in groups, with their teachers and silently. In Danyel Jackson's kindergarten through second-grade class, students were reading a picture book about the environment and drawing their own illustrations.
Rosario O'Neal, 6, drew a blue ocean teeming with dolphins and whales.
"I saw some real ones at an aquarium, and I like the way they swim," Rosario said. "I'm learning about the environment and to help protect the Earth by not putting trash in the water."
Jaylen Chairez, 8, said she likes reading funny books and about science "inside the body and stuff." She's also learned about African history and presidents and said her love of reading has grown so much that recently, halfway through one of her favorite video games, she stopped and picked up a book.
"It's different than real school; you're doing work but at the same time you're having fun," said Jaylen, who enrolled in the program with her best friend, Wendy Fuentes, 10. "The best part is, we can just be free here."