CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Every morning, for six weeks this summer, 100 kids will step off the school bus at Sedgefield Elementary School to a staff of college students chanting and clapping, "G-O-O-D-M-O-R-N-I-N-G! Good morning! Good morning!"
It is just the start of a day that's filled with a unique combination of cheers and chants, and learning. Sedgefield is one of 15 sites in Charlotte that is home to the Children's Defense Fund's Freedom School program. The non-profit summer schools serve poor and minority students who may not have access to educational camps or resources for summer education.
All children are at risk of summer learning loss," explained Mary Nell McPherson, who runs Charlotte's program, "but many poor children's parents either don’t know or can’t afford to fill that gap, and so Freedom schools does that."
McPherson said without some form of summer learning, a student typically falls 2 to 3 months behind. In fact, some research shows students without it are two grades behind their peers by the sixth grade. "[It] is the biggest reason for the achievement gap between low and higher income children," she said.
At Charlotte's Freedom Schools, the day begins with breakfast, because nearly all of the students who participate in Freedom Schools get two meals a day at school during the school year. Food is immediately followed by a high-energy ceremony the Freedom Schools calls "harambee."
In Swahili, it roughly translates to "let's pull together" and it's a centerpiece of the program, aimed at engaging and exciting the students for the day ahead. One student each day is charged with interviewing and introducing a guest who has come in to read to the children. Others take the microphone to recognize their peers. Mostly though, the college-age interns who teach the children lead them in cheers, songs, and dances. It's exercise for the mind and body.
Inside the classrooms, lesson plans focus on retention, particularly on reading and reading comprehension. The program boasts that a recent UNC-Charlotte study of Freedom School participants 65 percent actually improved beyond the grade level they read at before the summer.
"There are many, many more children in need than we can serve," McPherson acknowledges. The 15 sites in Charlotte currently serve 1,000 children, but 50,000 are on free or reduced lunch in CMS, and McPherson estimates 90 percent of those children do not have access to summer learning.
The programs are sponsored by organizations that have adopted each community served. Sedgefield, for example, is partly funded by volunteers from Myers Park United Methodist Church.
Charlotte's Freedom Schools will be joined Friday, July 8 at 12 p.m. for a "Lights on Literacy" jubilee by Marian Wright Edelman, current president of the Children's Defense Fund. She'll witness a giant "harambee" attended by children from Freedom School sites in Charlotte, and other cities in the Carolinas. Tickets are available for the public event at www.freedomschoolpartners.org.