Tracy Bailey: Freedom Readers

By Connie Barnard

Tracy Bailey: Freedom Readers

Tracy Swinton Bailey recently stood before a group of prospective volunteers to talk about Freedom Readers, the innovative non-profit reading program she founded to help local children develop critical reading skills. Her presentation began with these words:

“Not too long ago, in a house on a dirt road not too far from here, a father and his daughter played out a nightly ritual. The daughter, dressed in warm PJs, is tucked into bed. The father, tired from a long day at work, settles into a chair and reads his baby girl a story. She listens intently as her mind travels to distant places…The daddy, having walked away from formal schooling after the 8th grade, reads to her with gusto and passion.”

The little girl in this story is Tracy herself, a dynamic, impressive young woman who recently began work on a doctorate in language and literacy. Descended from slave families living since the early 1700s in the close knit North Santee community of lower Georgetown County, Tracy and her siblings were the first generation in her family to receive high school diplomas. The area’s isolated location and limited transportation forced her parents and most residents to drop out of school after the eighth grade. Yet Tracy’s father read to her with a gusto and passion he passed on to his daughter, who graduated from Georgetown High School in 1991, the College of Charleston in 1995, and received a masters degree from Coastal Carolina University in 2009. Shortly after starting her doctoral studies, Tracy interviewed her father, now 75, to find out how he learned to read. To her amazement, she discovered that her grandmother, who had very little formal education, had empowered her son with a love of reading which he passed on to his young daughter. Their nightly ritual of reading together helped shape Tracy’s life. Now she, in turn, is paying it forward, dedicating her time, resources and energy to opening the world of reading to children who otherwise might never know its magic.

After graduating from college Tracy joined the faculty of Socastee High School as an English and journalism teacher. Her friend and mentor, CCU professor Dr. Sally Hare, says, “Tracy’s gift as a teacher was that she was never satisfied. She was always pushing herself to do more, to find a better way of teaching, especially to reach those kids that seemed to be falling through the cracks in the system.” She sponsored the Multicultural Club and in 1999, with support from across the educational community, organized Teen Summit, an annual conference which for four years brought together student body presidents and other representatives from every high school in Horry and Georgetown Counties. The participants, from varying economic, academic, and racial backgrounds, met once a month to plan the two-day conference at CCU featuring keynote speakers who discussed issues of common concern. Tracy still hears from participants who say the program changed their lives and the way they view the world.

The idea for Teen Summit originated from conversations with her dearest friend, her husband, writer Issac Bailey, whom she met the summer before her senior year of high school when both participated in the Governor’s School for Academics in Charleston. The young man from St. Stephen went on to receive a degree in journalism from Davidson College, refusing to let physical, racial or economic barriers impede or embitter him. Married in 1998, Tracy and Issac Bailey are tireless in their efforts to create new opportunities and honest dialogue throughout the community. Tracy says her husband’s courage is her greatest motivation. ”You have to learn to live a no excuses life. Issac personifies this. If he can take little steps and big leaps every day, I can too.”

When their son Kyle was born in 2001, Tracy left the classroom to invest herself fully in him and his sister, Lyric, who arrived three years later. Tracy continued to take graduate classes at CCU and work as a volunteer in the Burgess Community. Then in 2005 she was approached regarding a position with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education [NUA] which partners with school districts across the country to assess and assist in meeting educational needs of all students. The next four years Tracy traveled one week out of each month, mentoring teachers across the country in developing effective learning strategies for non-traditional students. She looks back on the experience as both eye-opening and life-changing: “My experience with NUA opened my eyes to the injustices taking place in our schools, and I could not stop thinking, ‘We can do better than this.’”

The poet Robert Frost once wrote of the manner in which “way leads on to way.” Surely this was true for Tracy as each step along one path clearly prepared her for the next. In 2009, using innovative strategies from her NUA work as the culminating project for her master’s degree, Tracy developed a program for children in the Burgess Community aged 4-13. They met twice a week for eight weeks to research and share life stories of historic figures included in the South Carolina state standards. The project culminated in “Faces of Freedom,” a glorious production presented at a community-wide celebration. Community leaders and CCU academic advisors alike praised the program for helping the children understand the significance of their unique history and the heroic shoulders on which they stand.

Once you learn to read, you are free forever.

In 2009, on a wing and a prayer, Tracy entered the doctoral program at USC’s School of Education and began weekly commutes to Columbia. Her first course in language and literacy examined the interplay between culture, language and cognition, a concept she understood from a very personal perspective. Despite a natural intelligence and drive to achieve, Tracy knew that both she and Issac could easily have been doomed by their early environments. Knowing first-hand the link between reading skills and success in school, the young couple laid out an ambitious vision for the future, one that would connect children from at-risk backgrounds with adult volunteer reading partners in a one-on-one developmental reading program which came to be known as Freedom Readers.

Tracy says, “I know first-hand that we have wonderful schools in Horry County with dedicated and caring teachers who are making a difference in the lives of young people. However, they need our help. In a class of 20 students, few teachers can read with each one individually. We know that children whose families are below the poverty line are less likely to be read to every day than those with higher incomes. We also know that reading aloud to children builds listening skills, increases a child’s attention span and develops the ability to concentrate at length.”

Now in its second year, Freedom Readers meets at two area locations, Huckabee Heights and Darden Terrace, in 12-15 week sessions held throughout the year. In groups limited to 20 participants, the children gather after school one day a week for 90 high-energy, intensive minutes. In addition to its main goal of improving critical reading skills, the program is also designed to build confidence and leadership from within. The children gather to enjoy a healthy snack, then stand together and recite these proud words: “I Stand Tall. My family. My community. My country. My world. The world is waiting for my leadership.” For the next hour, trained volunteer reading partners and program participants read together each to each, listening and affirming. Afterward, the children receive a new book to take home for their personal libraries.

Tangible benefits of the program are obvious, but for participants and volunteers alike, the intangible ones are equally significant. During the last 15 minutes of each session the children re-assemble as a group, and each one gives a short speech on the topic, “This Is What Is Important to Me”. Subjects vary from personal goals to concerns about trash on the playground. Phillip Miles, a volunteer mentor and Tracy’s pastor at Christ Community Church, says, “My involvement as a tutor has been eye opening. I have found these students to be willing and able to grow their reading potential with just a little boost from a volunteer. The connection between tutor and student is strong by design and very effective. The results are amazing. Freedom Readers has opened my eyes and heart to the beauty and potential of others so close yet so far away.”

Asked to share her vision for the next ten years, Tracy smiled and said, “I’d like Freedom Readers to operate from its own building near the community, have state-of-art- technology, active support for families from their children’s birth, and the children in the program today enrolled in IB and AP programs on their way to Ivy League colleges.” Wow! As for herself, Tracy describes her future as a walk of faith: “I don’t know exactly where I’m supposed to go, but I know to take the next step.” Wherever she goes and whatever she does, it is sure to be a mighty journey, one which began with the love of a father who read nightly to his little girl and a partner and soul-mate who shares her vision of making a difference, one child at a time.

To learn more about this program, please visit www.freedomreaders.org.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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4 Responses to “Tracy Bailey: Freedom Readers”

  1. Tracy is an indomitable and beautiful spirit! She leads with her heart and an extended hand to bring others along in her journey to empower more people. She is authentic, caring and brilliant in her ability to convey knowledge to those she collaborates. We are honored to have Tracy as a colleague and a National Urban Alliance Mentor. Individuals such as Tracy work to improve the world — that is their gift!
    We absolutely love this article which stands as a marker and beacon for others to follow as they work to improve communities across America. Go Tracy Go!

  2. This is great! I am glad to read about all you are doing!

  3. Evelyn Rothstein says:

    Hi Tracy: this is Evelyn and I’d like to add my own children’s books to your Freedom Readers. What a great idea you have put together. Hope we can meet again and work together. Love,

  4. Nell Collier says:

    Tracy,
    I am blessed just to know you. What a great accomplishment and beautiful story! I am not surprised, because you are an awesome young lady and I truly appreciate the great work you are doing.

    LOL, Nell

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