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Child Watch® Column: "Empowering the Next Generation Through the CDF Freedom Schools® Program"

Release Date: May 29, 2009

Marian Wright Edelman

Close your eyes and think about the words summer school. What comes to mind? If you picture a room full of children clapping, chanting, laughing and learning to fall in love with books and reading, you could be imagining the experience thousands of children across the country are about to have over the next few months as they participate in the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program. Proudly rooted in the American Civil Rights Movement and the courageous efforts of college-age youths to make a difference, the CDF Freedom Schools program provides summer and after-school enrichment through a model curriculum that supports children and families around five essential components: high quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; social action and civic engagement; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health. 

Through partnerships with community-based organizations, faith institutions, municipalities, schools, colleges and universities, the CDF Freedom Schools program boosts student motivation to read, generates positive attitudes toward learning, and connects the needs of children and families to the resources in their communities. The CDF Freedom Schools model incorporates the totality of the Children's Defense Fund's mission by fostering environments that encourage children and young adults to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves and in their families, schools, communities, nation and world, through hope, education and action. Since 1995, more than 70,000 children and families have been touched by the CDF Freedom Schools experience, and more than 7,000 college students and 1,500 adults have been trained to deliver this approach to child empowerment. We plan to serve nearly 9,000 children at 142 program sites in 75 cities in the summer of 2009.

CDF Freedom Schools sites are safe and restorative learning spaces where children are surrounded by caring adults from their community who share their enthusiasm for learning and reading with the children and commit to serving them as authentic mentors. CDF Freedom Schools programs are staffed primarily by college-age young adults who are committed to making life better for children. Training coordinated by the CDF Freedom Schools national office prepares them to provide an enriching experience for the children they serve and to be part of a future generation of servant leaders. The Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute promotes principles of servant leadership by fostering an understanding of the connection between effective programs and public policy and the importance of community development, political advocacy and coalition building. The strong ethic of service is evident across generations as community leaders support these servant leaders while they teach and mentor the children in their charge.

In the CDF Freedom Schools program, children are engaged in activities that develop their minds and bodies, and nurture their spirits. Children receive two nutritious meals and a healthy snack every day in the summer program and snacks in the after-school sessions. Each day begins with "Harambee!" a self- and group-affirming celebration and preparation for the work ahead. Children, parents and staff are introduced to a superb collection of books that reflect their own images and are part of an integrated reading curriculum in which books, activities, field trips and games all relate to and reinforce each other. The servant leader interns use this curriculum to teach the children conflict resolution and critical thinking skills, encourage them to participate in art and athletic activities, engage them in community service and social action projects, and inspire them not only to explore the problems facing their communities, but also to become active in working toward solutions. Children are encouraged to dream, set goals for themselves, and cultivate positive attitudes and high expectations.

Parents and family members are the most important partners in their children's education, and the CDF Freedom Schools program offers them the support and skills they need to help their children succeed. Caregivers are required to demonstrate their commitment to the program by becoming actively involved in the daily CDF Freedom Schools activities. Family members also participate in weekly workshops where they learn about children's educational and social development and gain the necessary skills to empower them to help their children. CDF Freedom Schools programs serving distressed children and families are encouraged to incorporate therapeutic interventions and health and mental health services, and youths whose lives have been affected by crises receive consistent, daily service to help them better understand themselves, their situations and their potential. For example, our CDF Freedom Schools Emergency Katrina Projects in Mississippi and Louisiana became a model for serving children and youths affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Where will the children in your community go once school's out? A summer spent at a CDF Freedom Schools site can have a lasting impact. Opportunities like the quality after-school and summer enrichment offered by the CDF Freedom Schools program need to be available to many more children who can benefit from them and find safe haven from the streets.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Pam at: August 7, 2014
I am excited to hear about the Freedom School Program. My plans are to start an after school/tutoring program in my neighborhood. I would like to know how I can be trained to offer this program.

Submitted by MommyLady at: July 3, 2014
For many years as a stay at home mother I have behaved in just this manner. Your words here emmulate the passion that I have felt since I've been 13 years old. Of all the programs I have voluteered for, researched and dreamed about. Yours is a great fitfor me and, I hope you could fine it in your heart to mentor me so, that I can bring a program to my neighborhood children that would offer them the positive and effective benefits that a Freedom School After School program. I live in the Collinwood-Notingham "A Proud Neighborhood" in Cleveland, Ohio. Help me help them. My current volunteer assignment is a tutor and overseer of teen tutor of 1st through 12 children at the African American History Museum.

Submitted by Randi Johnson at: December 3, 2013
I am Looking forward to our third year as a CDF Site. I enjoy watching my student's growth as citizens. I also can't wait until training. There is nothing like a national Harambee!

Submitted by wishing teacher at: November 18, 2013
I am so excited about the freedom school programs. Would love to have this program in my area.

Submitted by Parent & Child Connection at: April 4, 2013
This is the key for all future generation! Parents and family members are the most important partners in their children's education, program should be mandatory to all parents to learn skills they need to help themselve and to suppor their children succeed.

Submitted by Donna at: August 8, 2012
This program sounds very helpful to all children to learn to interact with other children and adults during the summer.

Submitted by GeeGee at: July 1, 2012
Submitted by Gladys Grant I am currently a doctoral student and have always been a child advocate specifically in the area of improving education at the seconday level. I talked with my daughter who worked under the Children Defense Fund while a student at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina and had the opportunity to meet Dr. Marian E. Wright,about an opportunity to work in a program that advocates for youth education. I, also, read your article on the CDF programs and services and would like some additional information. Please respond to my e I am very interested in this program and would like to know how to begn the process to establish this program in our community. We are in desperate need of summer programs, after school programs and other services in our rural area here in Sumter County. Please provide info to gladysgrant53@yahoo.com. Thanks

Submitted by The Aspiring Librarian at: February 28, 2012
This program is an invigorating and dynamic mix of learning and fun! 6 to 7 weeks of this would not be grueling or boring for children. The title of servant leader intern describes the heart of those desiring to nurture todays active learners. I live in East St. Louis, Illinois and would like information on how a faith based organization may become a host. Thank You Linda Patton lipatton@mac.com

Submitted by TC at: February 4, 2012
Would I be able to host one of these in our neighbourhood this summer? I live in VA. Thanks.

Submitted by Floyd at: November 1, 2011
A great program...is there a curriculum I view online...?

Submitted by Joyce Ann at: March 21, 2011
This is a wonderful program that we would like to become part of. This column really spells out the types of programs and services that are in need of in our community.

Submitted by sandra santos at: March 7, 2011
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