When Kyla was in the third grade, she failed the state-required end-of-grade tests at her Charlotte, North Carolina elementary school. Her grandmother was worried that summer school wouldn’t be fun, but then she heard about the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® program, and she knew Kyla would love the program and learn at the same time. Kyla’s principal agreed that she could participate in the CDF Freedom Schools® program with the condition that Kyla retake her tests in the middle of the summer. When she did, she passed with the highest possible score. Kyla gave her CDF Freedom Schools experience the credit, especially the way the program is designed to foster a love of reading: “The stories we read in Freedom School, I could relate to, and we got to keep our books at the end of each week so I could read them again at home.”
Kyla wasn’t alone — an evaluation of Freedom Schools run by Freedom School Partners in Charlotte found summer learning loss staunched for 90 percent of the children served and 65 percent of the children showed gains in reading, sometimes by one or even two grade levels. And Kyla’s success didn’t stop. She returned year after year to the Freedom Schools summer program, and when she “graduated” at the end of eighth grade began training for a Junior Servant Leader Intern position which allows high school student volunteers to spend their summers with Freedom Schools serving as classroom helpers. Kyla will return as a second year Junior Servant Leader Intern this summer.
Francisco had his own transformation: when he began the Freedom Schools summer program he was a very shy fifth grader who wouldn’t read aloud, was reluctant to talk, and would barely raise his eyes to speak his name. But the Freedom Schools instilled a new sense of confidence in him along with a love for books, and by the end of the summer he was volunteering to read aloud. Pauline, one of the adult volunteers at a church-sponsored Freedom Schools site, was Francisco’s school lunch buddy during the year and was thrilled by the difference the program was making for her young friend. Francisco and his mother began attending the church and Pauline and other congregation members who had seen him blossom over the summer were able to continue supporting Francisco after the summer ended. By Christmas, something wonderful happened that would hardly have seemed possible just a few months earlier: Francisco was chosen to play Joseph at the church’s Christmas Eve pageant. He proudly delivered his lines over a wireless microphone at the bilingual service in both English and Spanish for the whole congregation to hear and applaud.
Kyla and Francisco are just two of the thousands of children for whom Freedom Schools has made an enormous difference. The program provides summer and after-school enrichment that helps children fall in love with reading, increases their self-esteem, and generates more positive attitudes toward learning. Children are taught using a model integrated curriculum that supports children and families around five essential components: high quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, health, and mental health. More than 90,000 children have had a CDF Freedom Schools experience since 1995. Now almost 12,000 children are about to have their own Freedom Schools summer at 177 sites across the country.
CDF Freedom Schools sites are safe and restorative learning spaces where children are surrounded by caring adults and college students from their community who share their enthusiasm for learning and reading and are committed to serving them as authentic mentors. Each day begins with “Harambee!” a 30-minute activity to celebrate and affirm every participant’s value and prepare for the work and learning ahead. Throughout the summer, children read high quality books and are engaged in learning activities that match their developmental needs and interests. The program is free, giving parents access to high quality child care, and children receive two nutritious meals and a healthy snack each day in the summer and nutritious snacks during the after-school program.
CDF Freedom Schools partner with public schools, community-based organizations, faith congregations, colleges and universities, cities, and juvenile detention centers to operate program sites and make these rich experiences possible. The scholars are encouraged to dream about college, set goals for themselves, and cultivate positive attitudes and high expectations; and for many of them, including Kyla and Francisco, the program is a life-changing experience.
To learn how to bring one to your area, come to CDF’s national conference in Cincinnati, Ohio this summer, visit local CDF Freedom Schools sites in session, and prepare to start a program that will serve the Kylas and Franciscos in your community.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.