By 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, cheering, laughing and falling in love with reading you could be imagining the experience thousands of children across the country are about to have as they participate in the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program. More than 1,400 college-aged servant leader interns, site coordinators and partners came together this week for National Training at historic CDF Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee to learn how to teach the “Freedom Schools way,” strategies for productive classroom management, and everything in between so they’ll be ready to lead the six-week summer literacy and cultural enrichment program for more than 12,000 K-12 scholars this summer.
The program’s roots are in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, but 55 years later its mission is as urgent as ever. Today data show the majority of public school students cannot read or compute at grade level and poor children and children of color are still particularly behind. Hostile school environments and exclusionary discipline policies disproportionately deny children of color and children with disabilities opportunities for success and contribute to their risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Everyone today should ask the Department of Education why they are seeking to halt or reverse some efforts to create a level education playing field for all children. Freedom Schools fills a gap created by an unequal and unjust system. The program stops summer learning loss using wonderful books that allow our scholars to read about their true history and see themselves in a range of age appropriate culturally diverse books selected by a distinguished committee of children’s book writers, illustrators, historians, and educators.
The CDF Freedom Schools program is designed to serve children and youth in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, too expensive, or non-existent. By partnering with schools, faith and community-based organizations, municipalities, colleges and universities, and juvenile detention facilities, the program is offered in these communities at no cost to low-income families who enroll their children. The model and the excellent, carefully-chosen books used in the multicultural Integrated Reading Curriculum are all designed to empower children to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, country and world with hope, education and action.
The CDF Freedom Schools program is also a servant leadership incubator for two generations—the children served and the college-aged servant leader interns who teach and serve them. The teachers’ energy and enthusiasm during National Training is infectious and they carry that joy back to their classrooms throughout the summer and beyond. I am proud that many of our servant leader interns have gone on to become committed teachers, counselors, and school administrators. We are especially eager to create a pipeline of desperately needed Black and Latino male teachers for our nation’s public schools. Not only do many servant leader interns fall in love with teaching during Freedom Schools, they also report back that they are now inspiring the next generation of teachers:
“I had an activity where my scholars had to list what they wanted to be when they got older. [One student] couldn’t write down an answer. By the end of Freedom Schools when I did the activity again, she wrote down that she wanted to become a servant leader intern and a teacher. This impacted me because I know that I have impacted her life.”
“One of my scholars keeps asking me what she can do to become a Freedom Schools intern, and that makes my heart so happy. She says she can’t imagine a summer without Freedom Schools in it, and honestly, neither can I.”
“I found my voice in Freedom Schools. I found my why. Freedom Schools is built in me. It’s part of who I am.”
We will send this year’s young servant leader teachers—like the thousands we have trained before them—out to educate and empower the next generation and spend their lives committed to service for our nation’s children. They will lead us forward and deliver on our promise to create a level playing field for all children.
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund.
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