The stream of public-school students getting off the bus at the private Providence Day School last week illustrates a summer trend: Freedom Schools are popping up across Charlotte.
The schools, created by the national Childrens Defense Fund in 1992, are six-week summer programs designed to boost reading skills and self-confidence among disadvantaged children in elementary and middle school.
Staff, parents and students at Providence Day this summer joined the growing number of churches, universities and other groups hosting the schools. With 25 sites up from 15 last summer Charlottes program is the biggest in the country.
Energized by the surge of interest, Freedom School Partners aims to boost enrollment from 1,600 kids this year to 5,000 in 2016.
If we can solve summer learning loss and get kids excited about reading, we can change the world, says Executive Director Mary Nell McPherson.
With the economy still rocky, why are people stepping up to a challenge that requires an investment $60,000 for a 50-student site? The cost is $200 a week per child; families pay only a one-time signup fee of $35.
McPherson likes to talk about magic. Theres the buoyant energy of the morning Harambee ceremony, where college students lead younger children in songs and chants to psych themselves up. Theres the joy of adult volunteers reading to crowds of rapt children, who go home with arms full of books.
For the more practical-minded, theres a measurable chance to help struggling schools and students. Teachers spend nine months working to get kids up to grade level, only to watch gains slip away when summers are spent in front of TVs or video games. National research indicates that summer slippage is one of the biggest contributors to the gap in academic performance between children of poverty and their classmates from middle- and upper-income families.
Schools help Freedom Schools identify children who need some academic help and arent likely to get good summer enrichment activities otherwise. The scholars, as participants are called, spend their mornings reading, in groups and on their own, with lots of access to stories about people who have achieved success despite obstacles. Afternoons are for summer fun and educational field trips, much like other camps.
UNC Charlotte researchers have tested Charlottes Freedom School students on reading skills for the last three summers, and found that at least 90 percent held steady or saw gains.
Weve got something that works, McPherson says, and weve got people that want to make a difference.
The Charlotte project began as an outgrowth of the youth programs offered at Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church near uptown. Seigles first Freedom School served 100 children in 2004.
Over the next four years, four large congregations and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools approached Seigles leaders about adding locations. By 2008 there were six.
The summer of 2009 saw the addition of three more sites, including Johnson C. Smith University and A Childs Place, a nonprofit group serving homeless students.
That fall, the Seigle Avenue group changed its name to Freedom School Partners and set the goal of serving 5,000 children by 2016. (Davidson College also has a Freedom School, founded shortly after Seigles, that remains separate.)
We got bold right about the time the market fell, McPherson says.
That made it difficult to seek big commitments, she says. But hard times also pushed many charities and foundations to refocus their mission, and many chose to support public education.
The next two years saw the roster of sponsors broaden to include two African-American congregations (C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian and Friendship Missionary Baptist), a Jewish-sponsored site at Shalom Park and the first business-sponsored site.
This year the biggest boost came from Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation), a philanthropic program to raise $55 million for nine west Charlotte schools. LIFT is paying to provide the summer program to about 600 at-risk students at the eight elementary and middle schools that feed into West Charlotte High.
Not on my watch
But the LIFT model, supported by big donors, is the exception. Most efforts start with school-based volunteers who realize their kids need summer support, or with people who volunteer at a Freedom School and want to start their own, McPherson said.
Both were the case at Providence Day, the first private school to join the Charlotte program. Students were already volunteering as reading buddies at Rama Road Elementary. The two schools are less than a mile apart in southeast Charlotte. But at the public elementary school, more than 80 percent of children come from low-income homes. At the private school, which spans K-12, families from across the Charlotte area pay $16,000 to $21,000 a year in tuition.
Parents and faculty who had volunteered at other Freedom Schools got excited about bringing one to Providence Day. The school agreed to use its campus to host 50 children from Rama Road, with students, parents, faculty and alums donating, volunteering and providing supplies.
Social responsibility is part of our mission. Diversity is part of our mission, said Nicole DuFauchard, the schools director of multicultural affairs.
Providence Day student Matthew McClelland, 15, beamed as he chanted and sang with the younger kids on opening week.
The kids are awesome, Matthew said. He said he enjoys hearing them read stories and talk about how they could help characters solve their problems. Theyre really caring, and theyre just trying to learn.
The goal is to get volunteers and sponsors engaged year-round. Groups who have gotten to know the children for six weeks get invested in their future, McPherson said.
They say, Were not going to lose these kids on my watch. McPherson said.