By Marian Wright Edelman
Thousands of students who attended Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools summer enrichment programs this year are now headed back to school armed with the confidence that for every new challenge this school year brings, as the CDF Freedom Schools motivational song says, “There’s something inside so strong!” Every year the college-aged Servant Leader Interns who teach in CDF Freedom Schools programs and the adults who serve in all kinds of leadership roles marvel at the children’s growth and achievements over the course of the summer. The nonprofit Freedom School Partners coordinates programs for children in grades K-8 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they recently shared stories from a few of the adults who were part of their community’s Freedom Summer.
Shaconda Melton is the parent of two CDF Freedom Schools alumni, and her 5-year-old grandson Kaiden just finished his first year as a student, or “scholar,” at one of the Charlotte sites. For the last twelve years she’s also served as the Freedom School Partners’ Transportation Coordinator, overseeing bus schedules for the regular day routes and field trips. It’s small wonder that she says the CDF Freedom Schools program has been a “a huge part of my family for so long.” Employees from the bus company closed their office one day this summer so their drivers and even the company’s owner could attend one of the special CDF Freedom Schools programs and see the scholars in action, and afterwards those colleagues were asking how they could enroll their own children next summer too.
Melton’s family has adapted CDF Freedom Schools traditions into their routines at home, including using a mini version of “Harambee,” the morning meeting and greeting, as they wake Kaiden up each day. This summer she got to watch the CDF Freedom Schools program ignite Kaiden’s interest in reading—”He has a new spark to learn. He’s ready to go over sight words now because he wants to be able to read fun books”—just as she’s seen it spark the same love of learning in other scholars over the years: “I have seen the transformation of scholars having a true foundation of learning through fun exploration and activities. … Sometimes learning is intentional, sometimes it’s not. It’s just doing and not even noticing that it is happening.”
Just like Shaconda Melton, Freedom Schools Partners Senior Program Director Tiffany Williams has been part of the CDF Freedom Schools family for a long time. During college she spent four summers serving a Servant Leader Intern, and then worked in a CDF Freedom Schools after-school program before being hired as a Program Assistant. Now, after a long progression of teaching and leadership roles, she oversees the Charlotte programs. Her experience gives her confidence in how much the CDF Freedom Schools program is making a difference right now and high hopes for the future:
“To me, Freedom School represents how teaching and education should be. I think the ‘Freedom’ in Freedom School is so important because our scholars are free to be themselves. At Freedom School, we value everyone for what they bring to the larger group. I also often say that Freedom School is magic because of the transformations we see in our scholars and staff each summer. … I hope to see Freedom School making an impact in our schools, especially the ones we focus on. Can you imagine 50, 60, or 70 students coming back to school in August more excited about reading and learning, and more prepared overall for the school year? These students would come with increased self-confidence and conflict-resolution skills. We also have teachers and future teachers who work with us that now can infuse the Freedom School way into their classrooms, influencing the overall culture of schools.”
Imagine this impact multiplied in schools and communities across our country! This summer CDF Freedom Schools programs operated in 90 cities and 25 states, serving more than 10,000 students and giving each one a literary-rich experience that nourished their minds, bodies, and souls. In addition to nurturing a love of reading and avoiding summer learning loss, scholars have self-reported that their CDF Freedom Schools experience helped them regulate their emotions and behaviors, empathize with others, communicate and listen, negotiate conflict well, and make good choices. These students are headed back into their year-round classrooms ready to soar, and that’s a summer every child deserves.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.