Area children are gaining literacy and character-building skills this summer as part of Freedom School on Providence Day School’s campus.
Freedom School is a six-week summer program of the Children’s Defense Fund, a child advocacy group, and was created to provide enrichment that helps children appreciate reading, increase their self-esteem, generate positive attitudes toward learning and prevent summer learning loss.
“Freedom School Partners serves kids, termed scholars, who most need summer learning but can least afford it,” said Julie Attilus, the development coordinator at Freedom School Partners.
Freedom School Partners works with local public schools and community partners to identify children who need summer learning experiences. The CDF creates policies and programs that lift children out of poverty, protect them from abuse and neglect and ensure their access to health care, quality education and a moral and spiritual foundation, according to their website.
Charlotte hosts 20 sites that each accommodate about 50 to 100 children. Freedom School works in tandem with particular schools in the area and partners with individuals within the schools, Attilus said. The program relies heavily on volunteers, with about 1,500 in the Charlotte area.
Providence Day School’s campus serves 50 scholars in their third summer, and Freedom School interns, who are college students, orchestrate the curriculum. Community members also contribute to on-site activities such as cooking, art projects and sports, said Katie Carmichael, the volunteer coordinator at Providence Day’s Freedom School site.
Providence Day was the first independent school in the nation to serve as a Freedom School host site, supplying classroom, activity and office space, volunteers and community engagement.
Freedom School is different from a camp, but is rather a summer reading experience, Attilus said.
Each day starts with Harambee, a Swahili word meaning “pull together,” which is a session including motivational songs and cheers to prepare children for the day. One key component of the Harambee session is having a community guest read to the scholars.
“There is also a increased sense of community, which I think increases their sense of safety throughout the summer and their willingness to be open and vulnerable with each other as the summer goes on,” Carmichael said.
Attilus said the Freedom School program has two objectives for the participants: literacy and character skills. The site hosts an integrated reading curriculum to allow students to read books and perform activities with the books.
“We choose books that are culturally relevant to the children we serve; this is one component that sets us apart from other programs,” Attilus said.
“Most schools in the school system do not provide multicultural curriculum… the majority of our students are Hispanic or African American, so they make sure they can see themselves in their literature and curriculum that they don’t get to see throughout the school year,” Nadia Johnson, the Freedom School site coordinator at Providence Day, said.
Johnson also said they try to use various activities to increase literacy skills.
“They do their own writing, as well. They have daily journals that they write in every day to help them process the material that they’ve read in class and process their feelings. There are instances in the stories that they relate to, so they have their journals to write to articulate that to themselves,” Johnson said. “Writing also plays a big role in their understanding of literacy and how they use writing to express themselves.”
The program attempts to prevent summer slide, an issue Johnson said is prevalent in children of poverty and that can lead to students losing up to two or three months of learning during the summer months.
“All children lose literacy skills over the summer – children in poverty lose more,” Attilus said, which she attributed to the lack of life experiences, such as traveling to museums, which their counterparts have.
Attilus is assured the Freedom School makes a difference in these children’s lives. “Ninety percent of the children in our program gain or maintain reading skills – most would lose ground otherwise,” Attilus said.
For the character skills component, some sites have seen personal growth in the children in social and emotional skills.
“They definitely have more confidence in their abilities. They embrace the curriculum more – at first they are unsure about themselves and whether they should speak up and contribute to conversations. Now they are much more confident in the role they play in the curriculum. … We definitely see progress with character building,” Johnson said.
The program is expanding its evaluation this year to include a pilot for socioemotional skills, which are an important indicator of future success, Attilus said.
Johnson was attracted to leading Providence Day’s site due to the opportunity and access Freedom School provides to children who would not otherwise have it, she said. Both Johnson and Carmichael feel the program allows children to have a greater chance to succeed and encourage them to push for greatness, despite their socioeconomic backgrounds.
“We stress that our scholars can do and can become what they dream,” Attilus said. “We believe in children so children will believe in themselves.”