With an interest in teaching, Brigitte Bonsu ’25 knew working in a classroom environment while in college would be key if she wanted to pursue a career in education. This summer, the English major got the opportunity to earn valuable hands-on experience while also helping make a profound difference in children’s lives.
For six weeks, Bonsu was a faculty member with the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy (FSLA), where college and high school students are encouraged to become both educators and activists. “The program seeks to increase literacy for Black children in a community,” she explains. “It’s also a way for future educators to take the first steps into classroom teaching.”
FSLA is an initiative launched by the Center for Black Educator Development (CBED), whose mission is “To achieve educational equity and racial justice by rebuilding the national Black Teacher Pipeline.” CBED states, “Research shows when Black students have Black teachers who reflect their experiences and worldviews, they perform better in school. But most go through 13 years of public education without one. As a result, Black students continue to fall short of their academic potential.”
Centering on “this national educational crisis,” CBED is growing the number of Black teachers “and promoting anti-discriminatory, culturally responsive educational practices. All so Black students can reap the full benefits of a quality public education.”
FSLA provides programming for students in grades K-2 in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Memphis, where Bonsu was assigned. “The application process is competitive, and fewer than 20 college students are accepted into the program,” she explains.
Bonsu’s role in Memphis was as a Servant Leader Apprentice (SLA), and her responsibilities included creating lesson plans and leading a classroom of up to 12 students. She says the children’s regular activities involved “reading a book at their level based on tests they took before they started the program and playing games to help them practice the words they were learning. We also read them books that would help them understand and become more confident in their Black identities.”
Throughout the program, SLAs are supported in the classroom by high school students, or Junior Servant Leaders (JLAs). They are also mentored and coached by Black teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools. “We would debrief with the teachers, and they would guide us on how we could improve and what to consider moving forward,” Bonsu says.
One of Bonsu’s favorite FSLA moments was the daily morning celebration called Harambee (Swahili for “pull together”). Energized by chants, cheers, and songs led by the SLAs and JLAs, Harambee, she says, “is a social circle that recognizes the children and offers them positive affirmations about themselves.”
Bonsu also cherished the end-of-program event featuring the high school students who focused on social justice during FSLA. “They led a community gathering and showcased different talents as well as presentations on Black history and culture.” Another highlight was painting murals with the children. “The murals reflected Black themes on which we were educating them. We wanted them to remember who we were talking about, and it was really beautiful.”
FSLA, and participants such as Bonsu, are profoundly impacting children in the communities they serve. CBED reports that during the 2022 program, a “majority of young scholars (83%) improved one or more reading levels. Students also significantly improved their ability to read whole words. Over the summer program, we also saw increases in their ability to make correct letter sounds and read with fluency. Positive racial identity also increased among all participants.”
As a result of completing her teaching apprenticeship, Bonsu is eligible to apply for a Black Teacher Pipeline Fellowship through CBED. This spring, she will continue building her academic portfolio as she embarks on a semester in France.