Just across town from the college, Davidson students are leading a six-week literacy program designed to empower children, igniting in them a passion for learning.
The Freedom Schools program, based on the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, was developed by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) in 1995 to address equity issues within the U.S. education system.
CDF developed the curriculum, which integrates reading, conflict resolution and social action while promoting social, cultural, and historical awareness, to "help children fall in love with reading, increase their self-esteem and generate more positive attitudes toward learning," according to the CDF website.
Davidson College in 2005 became the first higher educational institution to sponsor a Freedom Schools program. The schools, frequently hosted by churches, have been in the Charlotte region for more than a decade.
"The program is full with a waiting list," said Ashley Sherrill, director of the college's Freedom Schools Program, which is overseen by the Center for Civic Engagement. She explained that the CDF charges all Freedom School sites to recruit and serve children with the greatest need, which is often interpreted as financial need.
"We are actively shifting the paradigm of ‘need,'" Sherrill said. "In the Davidson area, there are not many places for children of color to congregate without stigma. We believe that all children need to understand the history of people of color in the United States, all children need to be encouraged, inspired and challenged to think deeply and critically about our impact on the word-thus, our Freedom Schools site is open to children of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds."
Davidson students act as Servant Leader Interns for the program after attending a week-long training session at the Alex Haley Farm in Tennessee with more than 2,000 interns from around the nation and two weeks of local training with the Davidson College team on campus. Each intern must adapt and personalize the CDF reading curriculum for his or her scholars.
For aspiring teachers such as Alex Saintelus '15, Freedom Schools provides extensive experience in a classroom setting.
"I'm constantly amazed at how smart the kids are," Saintelus said. "The reading curriculum is structured so you analyze how a story relates to bigger issues and develop those critical reading and thinking skills."
From their first day in the program, the 49 participating kindergarten-through-eighth graders are known as "scholars."
"We have to spend the first few days showing them ‘The Freedom School Way,'" said Sherrill, who became a Freedom School intern in 2001 and has served as the program director at Davidson since 2007. After working with Freedom Schools as a college student for three summers in Philadelphia an earning her master's degree, she eagerly accepted the Davidson position.
"I've seen most of these kids grow up," Sherrill said. "We only have them for six weeks in the summer, but their parents tell us that it makes such a difference."
On a typical day, the scholars convene at the Ada Jenkins Community Center at 8 a.m., eat breakfast, enjoy a story read by a guest from the community, participate in a spirited opening assembly called Harambee (Tiswahili for "let's pull together"), and delve into the proscribed integrated reading curriculum. A field trip or other Afternoon Activity occupies the scholars until 3 p.m., when they depart for home.
Sherrill explained that the scholars benefit from and enjoy the exposure to new and different activities. This summer, some of the activities have included a basketball clinic, magic show, choir, and a trip to the Central Piedmont Community College Theatre for a production of Pinocchio.
Summer learning loss can affect all students, but studies indicate that literacy intensive efforts such as Freedom Schools do improve outcomes. Findings from a 2010 evaluation of 11 Freedom Schools sites in the Charlotte region showed a marked increase in reading ability for children in grades two through five. More than 60 percent of the 52 children in the study showed moderate to significant improvement, while 27 percent "maintained," meaning they did not experience summer learning loss.
Scholars tested at the Davidson site using the Gates-Macginitie Reading assessment in 2011 showed they had made four months of reading progress in six weeks.
Families interested in the Davidson College Freedom Schools Program are asked to fill out an online application, available the first Monday in February, and submit a $15 registration fee upon acceptance. The program is offered at no cost to participants.
In addition to empowering students, Freedom Schools also hopes to influence its interns. "We want them to see themselves not as community service volunteers, but as advocates who will promote positive change in whatever field they enter," said Sherrill.
A glance around the room is indicator enough that wherever the students go once they leave Davidson, they will take the Freedom Schools experience with them.
The interns sit with the scholars in their charge, enjoying breakfast and very lively conversation. The scholars vie for their attention, sometimes piling around the interns. Julie-Rose Gould '15, an intern with the third- through fifth-grade group, sits patiently, chatting with the children that encircle her, helping one child make an origami crane out of orange paper while another child braids her hair-yet another expression of the Freedom Schools Way.
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