South Charlotte

Nation's 1st Jewish-run Freedom School opens

When 50 low-income children in Charlotte charged down the school bus steps at Shalom Park last week, they made history.

The children, mostly black and Latino, are there for "Freedom School," a six-week literacy and enrichment program that helps prevent learning loss in the summer.

Hundreds of Freedom Schools have been operating across the U.S. since 1995, but Shalom Park's is the first Jewish-run Freedom School in the country.

The leaders try to make reading fun for the students.

Each day, at 11:34 a.m., students at Freedom Schools across the country drop everything to pick up a book.

Throughout the week, community leaders, such as principals, rabbis and even Mayor Anthony Foxx, read with the students.

Half of the students are from Huntingtowne Farms Elementary off Park Road, and half are from Sterling Elementary in Pineville. At Huntingtowne Farms, 74 percent of students receive free and reduced meals, and at Sterling, 91 percent receive free or reduced lunch.

Members of Temple Israel and Temple Beth El have volunteered at the schools for several years, so the synagogues and Jewish institutions at Shalom Park partnered earlier this year to set up the Freedom School for students from both schools.

It's free for the students, so the group raised money to provide staff, food and activities.

It costs about $1,200 per child, or $60,000, to operate a site for one summer, officials estimate.

And there's always a different afternoon activity planned - from photography to chess, Tae Kwon Do to yoga, dramatic play to swimming.

On Monday of last week, all of the students got a bag holding a bathing suit in their size, beach towel and an inspirational biography about baseball legend Jackie Robinson to add to their home library.

"It's great exposure," said Gale Osborne, who has helped coordinate the program. "The kids are having a great time."

Students who need help with their reading were targeted for the summer program.

A UNC Charlotte study found Freedom Schools improved or maintained the reading abilities of 90percent of its participants in 2010. About 65 percent of those children made gains in literacy, the study says.

"We have this fantastic facility that we can give to the community," said Osborne. "It's really what we should be doing. ... It's an education for everybody that touches these kids."