Spoken outside of educational theory circles, the name Paulo Freire (free-AIR-ee) likely won’t ring any bells. But in the halls of Freire Charter School in Wilmington, the name means an opportunity for educational and career success that many students couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise.
Established in 2015, Freire Charter is an extension of its two sister schools based in Philadelphia; all three are run by Freire Charter CEO Kelly Davenport, who established the schools based on the teachings of Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher who wrote extensively about education as a method of imparting knowledge along with empowerment, particularly to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While Freire put his theories to the test at the behest of the Brazilian government by teaching sugar cane workers to read in just 45 days (and earning the ire of successive right-wing governments in the process), the mission of the Wilmington school has two focuses: help underperforming students improve and then graduate from high school and college.
“What inspired me was the kids themselves and the idea that anybody, regardless of economic status, could access the American dream and achieve it,” says Davenport, noting education as the key tool.
As a public charter supported by public funds, Freire is open to all New Castle County students, tuition-free. But hewing to its commitment to support students who need the most help, GPA and testing don’t factor into whether a student is accepted. Of those who attend, 92% are students of color, and many are as much as three years behind where they should be academically.
Class sizes are kept small to provide individualized attention from diverse faculty and college counselors. Total enrollment is 500 students across five grades. While it’s technically considered a high school, admission begins in eighth grade, when many students are typically finishing middle school.
“We have seen that the longer a student is with us, the more growth they will make,” says head of school Madeline Weckel. “It’s really great when [they] have an extra year with us and more time to get acclimated to both the high expectations that we have but also the supportive community and the resources that they’re able to tap in to. …So by the time they get to [high school, when] that GPA really counts, they’re already set up…and they’ll have that much more time to become efficient and prepared for college.”
“What inspired me was the kids themselves and the idea that anybody, regardless of economic status, could access the American dream and achieve it.”
The results speak for themselves. Eighty-five percent of 2023 graduates were accepted into at least one of 81 colleges and earned more than $10 million in academic scholarships and financial aid.
Weckel attributes this success to Freire’s standards. Students are accepted with the understanding that they will work hard. From their perspective, this is motivator to stay dedicated.
“One thing that I feel like really prepares us is that 75 and below is failing,” explains 11th-grader Najah Davis. “And I feel like we wouldn’t get that at another high school… but [here], everybody is really supportive, and it’s a family. Staff are really big on helping us get to where we want to go.”
Regardless of their destination, Davenport says the school’s goal is to equip all students for success, even into adulthood.
“Our dream was, let’s start to teach kids about the world just like Freire did, so they can see the bigger context, make critical decisions, have the information that they needed to then access their vision,” she says.
Clint Walker, chair of the Freire Charter board of directors, puts it another way, echoing the core goal of the school’s namesake in empowering students to make significant contributions and changes to their own communities.
“One of our dreams is that our graduates come back and basically run Wilmington in 20 years,” he says.