Summer program works to boost Charlotte’s at-risk children

03/15/2013 12:00 AM

03/20/2013 3:10 PM

Mary Nell McPherson relishes the joy and satisfaction on children’s faces as they thrive in Freedom School Partners’ educational enrichment programs. She’s also moved by numbers on a page.

“We’ve got kids who are way behind in reading who gain a year in their reading comprehension in the summer,” says FSP’s executive director. “In six weeks of reading, they will go up a grade level - and that’s over 60 percent of our kids. Over 90 percent of our participants do not experience summer learning loss.”

On March 11, FSP finalized plans for this summer that added a new site at Alexander Graham Middle School – the seventh south Charlotte location among 19 in the Charlotte area serving 1,200 at-risk children at no charge to their families.

Established in Charlotte in 2004, FSP works with community partners and offers Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools programs to boost academic achievement, reduce dropout rates and encourage the love of reading. Schools, churches, corporations and synagogues offer their facilities and support via financial help and volunteers.

This summer’s program dates are June 24 - Aug. 2. A typical daily schedule from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. includes breakfast, lunch, enrichment activities and field trips, and an integrated reading curriculum of two to three hours in the morning.

“Literacy is a cornerstone of the work,” says McPherson, who lives in the Elizabeth neighborhood. “The afternoon is what feels a lot more like enrichment and summer fun. The kids do have great fun in the literacy part as well.”

Activities can include “a community member bringing a yoga class to the children. Sometimes all the kids gather together for a field day activity. Sometimes they’re going to the theater, or sometimes they’re at tennis clinics – just a whole variety of afternoon things. Our older kids do more real-world workplace visits because so many poor children don’t have role models.”

Older students can also benefit while furthering the program’s mission. Children are led in classrooms by 135 college students, paid interns “who are from similar backgrounds and provide a very valuable role as mentors to whom the younger children can relate,” says Patty Funderburg, an FSP board member.

McPherson says that last year, “more than a third of our college students were first-generation college students. Most of them are black and Latino – although we love having white interns on the site, too, because often, children haven’t seen black and white people get along well.”

The program, funded by private donations, “gives the Charlotte community a way to invest in education,” McPherson says. “It costs about $1,200 per child for the summer. That’s a deal. It’s meant to be for children who can’t afford it but really need it.”

Hillary Ryan, FSP’s director of marketing and special events, says “the whole program is really about building up individuals to be the most they can be. We apply that to all levels of involvement.”

“It’s magic for children,” McPherson says. “It’s magic for the college students whose lives are really changed by this – some who didn’t think they wanted to be teachers but now know they want to be teachers. There are some who didn’t know if they wanted to teach in the inner city but now they know they can. They will be child advocates for the rest of their lives no matter what they do.

“It’s developing future leaders and creating hope in an amazing way. Communities wrap their arms around kids and say, ‘These are precious resources; this is our future right here. We’re going to make sure our kids have what they need to succeed.’ ”

FSP Board Chair Burch Mixon says that enthusiasm helps make the program successful.

“Mary Nell is a tireless leader for children in Charlotte,” he says. “She is working to build a community of caring people around children so that each child may realize the gifts that they have been given and to reach their true potential. She is able to get others to share her vision and answer the call to help the children in our city who need us most.”

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