Summer reading saved: Freedom School a success

Date: January 25, 2014 Author: Categories: News

Harriet-K.-Meetz”Harriet K. Meetz

The echoes of Freedom School (FS) participants’ laughter is swirling in my brain as the earthy, musty smell of falling leaves and the scent of fresh crayons, paper and glue fill the air. Another summer yields to the back-to-school transition for Charlotte’s children. And for many students, that trasition will be smoother thanks to the city’s Freedom School program and the efforts of student leaders, parents and community volunteers.

The Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom School is a summer program to improve academic achievement, reduce dropout rates, and inspire the love of reading. Freedom School is committed to serving the children who most need and can least afford summer programming.

Summer reading success

Freedom School participants are called “scholars,” and they live in some of Charlotte’s most challenged and fragile neighborhoods. Summer gains in reading ability for FS scholars are particularly impressive when recent studies conducted by the RAND Corporation and Wallace Foundation and the Harvard Family Research Project show summer learning loss has a greater effect on low-income students. The average loss of two months in reading achievement occurs over the summer for low-income children. Not only is the summer learning loss disproportionate for low-income children, it is also cumulative, contributing greatly to the achievement gap.

“The community embraced this work as more and more people said, ‘Not on my watch are we going to lose these children,’ ” said Mary Nell McPherson, Executive Director of Freedom School Partners (FSP). “The Charlotte community will not let these children lose their potential,” she said. “Education of our children is everyone’s business, and everybody has a role to play in developing the education system. This is community building work. Find your place to contribute.”

As a FS volunteer this summer, I have the privilege of enjoying their significant progress and trumpeting some exciting end of summer results:

Freedom School prevented summer learning loss in reading (kids lose reading skills during summer vacation) for more than 90% of participants. Summer gains in reading ability occurred for 65% of age groups (K-8) of at-risk children attending the school. The impact on reading ability was evaluated by The Center for Adolescent Literacies at UNC Charlotte, and the reading gains have been consistent over the last three years.

FSP operates the Freedom School summer program at 25 Charlotte locations, and this summer served more than 1,600 scholars. Over six weeks the free, literacy-based program involves children in its Integrated Reading Curriculum, conflict resolution skills, and lessons promoting social, cultural and historical awareness.

FSP aspires to serve an increasing number of children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools currently have 60,000 children in need of FS services.

Multi-level community engagement

The magic of community building occurs on many levels. College students with a passion and commitment to be role models in the lives children serve as Servant Leader Interns. After 110 hours of training, the interns work as teachers during classroom activities and mentors through the scholars’ time at FS. Two generations of young people interact in a positive environment with huge benefits for both groups.
One intern recounted a FS experience: “During a parent meeting one of the parents walked up to me and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but my child always wants to write now. Thank you.’ That’s when I realized how much of an impact I have on my scholars.”

Parent involvement

Parent involvement is the second critical element of community building that sustains a vibrant, educated community. Freedom School programs integrate parent involvement through weekly parent workshops and volunteer opportunities. During the end-of-school celebration the parents see their children’s accomplishments from the summer session. One parent said, “My child had phenomenal interns and a site coordinator that taught him how to be confident about himself, his family and his community.” Another parent said, “Before Freedom School, it would always be me that had to bring the book to my child. Now she’s always coming to me with something she wants to read to me, and I’m loving it.”

Community volunteers

Community engagement is the final community building block. Volunteers have a wide range of opportunities to engage with the children during the summer. Each summer day starts with a community volunteer reading a book aloud during a session called Harambee (Kiswahili for “Let’s Pull Together”). Hillary Ryan Dye, Director of Development and Marketing for FSP, summed it up when she said: “Everyone can make a small impact by becoming a Harambee reader to children for summer 2013. A Harambee reader believes in the future of every FS child.”

Volunteering requires only 30 minutes reading a book to a group of FS scholars, ages 5 – 14 years old. Freedom School Partners can provide a book or volunteers can bring their own.

It’s the “it takes a village” mentality, and it works. Think of it: Something as simple and enjoyable as 30 minutes of reading to young people can help improve academic achievement and reduce dropout rates – results that foster student success and strengthen our city as a whole. I’ve got 30 minutes to spare, don’t you?