The rows of young people with “Kansas City CDF Freedom Schools” in black letters on their goldenrod T-shirts stood out among the 1,200 mostly college students shouting: “Rock the Freedom Schools, Rock the Freedom Schools.” The Kansas City contingent was the largest at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute conducted in June at the Alex Haley Farm near Knoxville, Tennessee. Each summer we train more than a thousand young adults to be servant-leader interns and staff our CDF Freedom Schools programs across the country. This summer, the program served nearly 9,000 children at 132 sites in 61 cities and 24 states through partnerships with churches, schools, colleges and universities and community organizations. Through the vision and generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the first location where the CDF Freedom Schools model has been brought to scale is the Kansas City Metropolitan Area (Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas). Over a three-year period from 2005 to 2007, 3,274 scholars from ages five to 15 attended the six-week summer Kansas City CDF Freedom Schools program. This summer, more than 1,800 children participated at 19 church sites.

Formed in 1995, the CDF Freedom Schools program was inspired by the Freedom Schools organized during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 whose mission was to prepare poor, disenfranchised and illiterate Black people in that state to take their places as active citizens and secure their right to vote. Mississippi and virtually all of the Southern states at that time failed to recognize that refusing to develop all of their people resulted in impoverishing the entire region. The first CDF Freedom Schools programs were established in Bennettsville, South Carolina, and at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.  Dwayne Crompton, a member of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, longtime CDF ally, and visionary early childhood leader, was instrumental in getting a CDF Freedom Schools program started in that city.

In 2004, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation took a risk by awarding a nine-year grant of $12.9 million to the Kansas City CDF Freedom Schools Initiative.  Kauffman made a long-term commitment in what it saw as a major investment in the future by recognizing that the CDF Freedom Schools program could make a difference in the lives of our children, too many of whom remain shackled by poor educations and low expectations for achievement. The Foundation has supported the continued incremental expansion of the CDF Freedom Schools program to reach a total of 20 sites in 2009 in the metropolitan Kansas City area.

The payoffs from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s investment are huge and hold great promise for our children. A three-year evaluation by Philliber Research Associates conducted between 2005 and 2007 examined changes in grade equivalent scores and found that “scholars who participated three summers [in the Kansas City CDF Freedom Schools program] went up an average of 2.2 grade levels.” Philliber Research Associates, an independent organization that provides evaluation and program assistance to human service groups, gave the Kansas City CDF Freedom Schools program high marks as a positive force in the lives of student participants, college servant-leader interns, parents and the churches that host the CDF Freedom Schools programs.

The three-year evaluation completed in May 2008 and released this week found that, when the model is implemented properly, children improve academically and develop stronger character and relationships with their families and communities. The study found that the reading abilities of Kansas City CDF Freedom Schools scholars significantly improved over the summer. This is especially encouraging news since the reading skills of lower-income and minority students generally decline during the summer months leaving them behind their middle-income and White peers when they return to school in the fall.

The evaluation stated that gains in reading were greater for: older scholars (sixth through eighth graders); girls; scholars from lower-income families; scholars who attended multiple years; and scholars attending sites that best implemented the CDF Freedom Schools model. Parents reported that their children demonstrated a greater love of learning; an appreciation of their culture; conflict resolution skills; and acceptance of responsibility.

Another Philliber evaluation finding was that servant-leader interns were more likely than the comparison group to retain their involvement in charities, community organizations, leadership and politics. And a substantially greater number of them plan to become teachers.

Through its creative and sustained financial support, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation investment in the development of our children and youth will build, enrich and strengthen Kansas City leaders for the future. We are grateful and urge other foundations around our nation to follow Kauffman’s example of farsightedness.

Learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools program at: