Making reading cool

Students taking part in the Freedom School program at Montclaire Elementary focus partly on reading skills to make sure their reading comprehension levels don’t drop over summer break while they’re away from their regular classes. Photo courtesy of John Lemmon

On a day when most elementary school-aged children are sleeping-in, 55 students board buses for the Montclaire Elementary Freedom School, a reading-focused summer program aimed at eliminating summer reading loss.  Upon arrival the students (referred to as scholars) eat breakfast and by 8:30 a.m. are gathered to clap and sing a jazzed up version of the Halleluiah Chorus.

The Freedom School model is different.  There are no formal teachers or testing.  T-shirt-and-jeans-clad college student interns, like Dewayne Fullard, read with children lying on the floor in a circle.  As each child takes a turn with the book, the subject of bullying and cutting class comes up.  Even by college kid standards Fullard is cool, so what he says goes: bad behavior is out; books are in.

According to the nonprofit Freedom School Partners, most low-income youth lose two to three months of their reading ability during the summer.  Their studies have proven that the Freedom School model prevents summer learning loss for more than 90 percent who participate, many of whom improve.  Students attend Monday through Friday for six weeks.  They also receive lunch and books to keep.

Though these rising first- through sixth-graders are “at risk of school failure,” they have great potential.  Hand-selected by their regular teachers for Freedom School, they have good attendance records and few behavior problems.  The goal is to keep it that way.

“Each day every child gets a hug, high five or handshake,” said the site coordinator for the Montclaire Elementary Freedom School, Alexa Driggers.  The small school size ensures affirmation and recognition for each scholar managed by six college interns who attended a national training workshop.

The team includes volunteers from Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church whose congregation adopted the school 11 years ago.  When Associate Pastor Mary Bowman heard about the Freedom School model, she and Pastor Rush Otey partnered with St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church to raise the necessary funds to make Montclaire a Freedom School in 2011.

“A child that goes to Freedom School three summers in a row is almost guaranteed to graduate from high school,” said John Lemmon, Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian parishioner and Montclaire Elementary volunteer.  “If we can keep this going, how wonderful would that be?”

During the regular school year, Driggers teaches at Huntingtowne Farms Elementary.  She taught second grade two years ago and moved to third grade last year.  Two of the same students stayed with her as they advanced, attending the Shalom Park Freedom School during the summer.  The confidence and excitement they gained there made a noticeable difference. “Their reading was so much better,” Driggers said.

Though the major focus is reading, the students perform STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities and experiments like “soda bottle explosion” and “edible Earth,” whereby the layers of the Earth’s core are demonstrated with candy.  They also have taken field trips to Discovery Place and Central Piedmont Community College to see a production of “Rapunzel.”

“Children want to learn because it’s engaging,” said Mary Nell McPherson, executive director of Freedom School Partners.  “They would rather be having fun reading good books with terrific college students than hanging out bored at home.”

With roots in the American Civil Rights Movement, Freedom School is a national educational model born out of the “Mississippi Freedom Summer Project” of 1964, whereby college students became servant leaders dedicated to overturning segregation in the South.  In 1992 the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) redeveloped Freedom Schools to advance education for all children.

Locally, the Freedom School Partners organization began in 1999 under the auspices of Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church.  In 2004 the Children’s Defense Fund selected Freedom School Partners to serve as a local sponsor for the CDF Freedom Schools program.  Today there are 25 locations like Montclaire Elementary, using 200 college students to educate 1,600 scholars.

Freedom School Partners brought in Spanish-speaking interns from as far away as Florida to teach the predominantly “English as Second Language” population at Montclaire Elementary, located off South Boulevard and Emerywood.

“We talked to friends at the Latin American Coalition, worked with Hispanic groups on campus, and told all our board members and community partners that we needed Spanish speakers,” McPherson said.

Montclaire Elementary features Communities in School site coordinator Nancy DeLuna who helps immigrant families navigate the American School System.  She also arranges continuing education for parents, like cooking classes held in the kitchen of St. Andrew’s United Methodist, across the street from Montclaire Elementary.

“These kids have strong parental involvement at home,” Lemmon said.  Though most parents work and transportation is difficult, each family completes five volunteer hours.

Every morning, each Freedom School begins with a pep rally called “Harambee,” the Swahili word for “come together” and credo for the Montclaire Elementary CDF Freedom School program and the two churches that made it happen.  It also is a blessing for rising sixth-grader Omar who loves books but admits, “I don’t like reading by myself.”

Lemmon sums it up as, “This is truly God’s work.”

To contact Freedom School Partners for more information: or 704-371-4922.


~ Dee Grano,

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