As a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, I saw courageous college students organizing Freedom Schools in Mississippi to prepare desperately poor, semi-literate, and disenfranchised Black people for active citizenship and to fight for the right to vote. I didn’t know at the time that we’d need Freedom Schools 40 years later. The Freedom Schools formed during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 were well named. Since the time of slavery, Black people in the South were deliberately undereducated so that they would remain servile and bend to the scourges of White supremacy and racial segregation. Freedom Schools then were designed to free impoverished Black people from the shackles of ignorance, make them informed voters and empower them economically.
Although the Jim Crow laws of racial discrimination were struck down decades ago, the original vision of Freedom Schools has inspired the creation of the new CDF Freedom SchoolsSM program dedicated to engaging adults in our communities and enlisting a second generation of young people in the mission of empowering children. A number of the problems the Freedom Schools of the 1960s were established to address still plague poor children of all racial backgrounds. Too many of them are victims of poor education, low expectations and dumbed-down television leaving them to grow up unempowered with few skills and limited prospects.
Education is the precondition for a child to thrive. Yet, only 13 percent of Black fourth graders can read at grade level. That kind of man-made disaster is what CDF Freedom Schools have been created to prevent and eliminate. We believe a child who can read is a more confident and empowered child. Children who can’t read are sentenced to a social and economic death. With the help of a group of nationally recognized reading specialists, backed by an intensive training course for college servant leaders at CDF Haley Farm, the Children’s Defense Fund has devoted years toward developing CDF Freedom Schools around a strong and effective integrated reading curriculum. The CDF Freedom SchoolsSM program was established in 1995 to provide safe, nurturing, literature-rich summer and after school environments where children can learn, bloom and serve. Each summer session lasts from five to eight weeks.
The CDF Freedom SchoolsSM program exemplifies CDF’s commitment to Leave No Child Behind. Each Freedom School site is focused on helping children from ages five to fifteen regardless of their family circumstances or the quality of the education they are receiving in school. Children come to us who are struggling with hunger, depression, anger issues, low self-esteem and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Some come from families where they experience physical and emotional abuse and homelessness.
CDF Freedom Schools set high expectations for all children and provide an academically and culturally enriching experience even for children whose lives have been compromised by poverty or disrupted by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Children are provided a consistent, predictable daily schedule including a nutritious breakfast and lunch. Each program day begins with a self- and community-affirming celebration where young scholars are told, often for the first time, that they “can and must make a difference.” Nonsense like “zero tolerance” discipline rules are thrown in the trash can where they belong.
Each site is staffed by a caring group of young adults focused on meeting the needs of children. The college students who become servant leaders and mentor these children are changed for life. A young adult who brings the excitement of books to young minds receives a powerful gift. When people ask me, “What are our young people up to?” My answer is, “Go to your nearest CDF Freedom School and find out.”
The Kansas City CDF Freedom SchoolsSM Initiative, a consortium of 15 faith-based sponsor partners, served 1,600 scholars last year. Studies over the last two years show that children from the poorest middle schools show dramatic gains in reading. Parents reported that their children had a greater love of learning, cultural appreciation, better conflict resolution skills and more involvement in the community after participating in the program. Another dividend of the program is that parents pay more attention to their children’s health and nutrition.
CDF Freedom Schools are conducted through partnerships with churches, schools, colleges and universities and community organizations. In 2007, there will be 131 Freedom School sites in 58 cities in 26 states and the District of Columbia. About 8,500 children will be served by nearly 1,000 teacher-mentor college students. Last year, we opened 19 Freedom School sites in Louisiana and Mississippi to address the continuing needs of children along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
We prove every day that children can learn! I hope that every congregation and community group will sponsor a summer or year-round program. Our ultimate goal is to cover the map with Freedom Schools.