Youth Justice


In many school districts across the country summer vacation is getting into full swing. But for a lucky group of nearly 10,000 children in 87 cities and 27 states around the country, it’s not just summer—it’s a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® summer.

“For me, Freedom Schools was my first exposure to African American college students. Until that time, I couldn’t tell you what college was, couldn’t spell ‘college,'” said Donnie Belcher, who began attending the CDF Freedom Schools program at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. when she was 12 years old. “I actually put a face, a Black face, behind the idea of going to college. We talk about the impact of fatherlessness on Black males, but not on females—and I still remember Lavelle, who was a Morehouse man. He served as the first positive Black male I had ever seen in 12 years.” That experience stayed with Donnie and fueled her dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher through her high school years and beyond.

Donnie became the first in her family to graduate from college. Today, with a B.S. and a master’s degree in education from DePaul University, she teaches high school English at the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, a college preparatory school in Chicago with distinguished alumni like Michelle Obama.

Proudly rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, and the efforts of college students to make a difference, the CDF Freedom Schools program trains college-aged young people—servant leaders we call them—to provide quality summer and after-school enrichment through a model Integrated Reading Curriculum that supports children and families around five essential components: high quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, health, and mental health supports. We partner with public schools, community organizations, faith congregations, colleges and universities, and juvenile justice facilities who sponsor and host their local Freedom School. About 90,000 children—scholars we call them—have had a CDF Freedom Schools experience since 1995 and 9,000 college teacher-mentors have been trained to serve them.

In the CDF Freedom Schools program children are engaged in activities that develop their minds and bodies and nurture their spirits. Children, parents, and staff are introduced to a superb collection of books that reflect their own images and are part of the integrated reading curriculum in which books, activities, field trips, and games all relate to and reinforce each other. The college servant leaders use this curriculum to teach the children conflict resolution and critical thinking skills, 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. Like Donnie Belcher, children are encouraged to dream, set goals for themselves, and cultivate positive attitudes and high expectations. We are forging a new vision for what can be done with and for our children. We want every child to know they can and must make a difference.

Research has shown the CDF Freedom Schools program is making an impact. In June 2011, Harvard Family Research Project released a report called “Year-Round Learning: Linking School, Afterschool, and Summer Learning to Support Student Success.” The CDF Freedom Schools program was one of 14 innovative national programs highlighted that have “demonstrated success in providing quality learning opportunities for youth.” Late last year, a two-year study of children enrolled at CDF Freedom Schools sites in Charlotte, N.C. and Bennettsville, S.C. reported that 90 percent of the children tested did not suffer summer learning loss, and 65 percent improved or showed gains in independent reading by the end of the program. An earlier three-year study conducted for the Kauffman Foundation reported in 2008 that students enrolled in Kansas City’s summer Freedom Schools program demonstrated significant improvement in reading.

In June, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and CDF hosted A Strong Start: Positioning Young Black Boys For Educational Success, a symposium that brought together leading educators, researchers, and policy experts to confront the crisis facing the 3.5 million Black boys from birth to age nine and to highlight programs that are making a difference in closing the achievement gap. One of the best practices shared during the symposium was the CDF Freedom Schoolsprogram. This summer, ETS is sponsoring a unique new Freedom School site in Newark, N.J. through a grant to Communities in Schools of New Jersey that is designed specifically for Black boys in grades three through eight.

“The Great Expectations CDF Freedom Schools® program will make a difference in the lives of Black boys by surrounding them with a dynamic network of young Black male teachers, leaders, and mentors trained to engage them in a proven summer enrichment model,” explains Gwendolyn Corrin, president and state director of Communities in Schools of New Jersey. Dr. Jeanne Middleton-Hairston, national director of the CDF Freedom Schools program, adds, “This CDF Freedom Schools site holds so much promise for young Black boys in Newark where 78 percent of Black fourth-graders cannot read at grade level. We have seen how our CDF Freedom Schools program can not only stop summer learning loss but also help children and youths improve their reading comprehension.”

We know the CDF Freedom Schools program is about to make an important difference this summer for these boys and the children at each of the other sites across the country. It’s critical that many more children have the opportunity to experience the CDF Freedom Schools program in the future. We have a goal of at least doubling the program over the next five years, including opening more sites on Black college campuses to put college rather than prison into children’s vision and in youth detention facilities to support re-entry and new beginnings. We are encouraging more of our college servant leaders, especially Black and Latino males, to become teachers to fill as many of the expected one million teacher openings over the next four to six years as possible (only two percent of public school teachers are Black males). Bringing proven models like the CDF Freedom Schools program to scale is one solution to closing the achievement gap and finishing the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement for all children: a quality education for every child.