CDF Freedom Schools: A Paradigm Shift
by Alex M. Johnson, Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA). Member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. Morehouse Man.
In a classroom adorned in bright colors, ten young scholars sit in a circle. One by one, they take turns reading aloud. At various points, the facilitator asks for examples of how their lives reflect those of the characters in the book or to share what they think will happen next in the story. It’s a powerful experience as students of color, primarily African-American and Latino, engage in culturally competent instruction through an extraordinary six-week summer enrichment program known as the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® program. The CDF Freedom Schools program seeks to build strong, literate, and confidant children prepared to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, nation and the world. The program is free to student scholars and families, and endeavors to help close a persistent achievement gap and reduce summer learning loss.
Freedom Schools were first started during the Civil Rights Movement. They were temporary, alternative free schools for African Americans mostly in the South with a purpose of achieving social, political and economic equality in the United States. With African American and Latino youth still laden with separate and unequal school systems across the country, contributing to achievement gaps, and high expulsion and dropout rates, Freedom Schools were reborn in 1995 under the leadership of Marian Wright Edelman with a transformative vision of high-quality education for all students. And similar to the Freedom Schools of the civil rights era,CDF Freedom Schools are taught by college students, providing them with a unique and invaluable teaching experience but also building a pipeline for more college students of color to enter the teaching profession.
Crystal Leon is one of those college students. She says she has seen how the CDF Freedom Schools program curriculum and its teaching methods have helped improve students’ reading and comprehension as well as foster a love for reading. Students like Iliana Estrada, who three years ago, was terrified to read a book aloud and actually hated reading. After two summers in the program, the now 8-year-old scholar is a confident reader and is often seen with a book in her hand.
Since 1995, more than 137,000 kindergarten through high school-age children have been impacted by the CDF Freedom Schools program experience and over 16,000 college students and graduates have been trained to deliver this powerful model. This summer, the Children’s Defense Fund-California will support 27 CDF Freedom School program sites, including four at juvenile detention camps, while serving approximately 1,700 children.
How do we accomplish this? The CDF Freedom Schools program is implemented through partnerships with local community-based organizations, faith-based groups, local governments, juvenile justice facilities, and universities. The Children’s Defense Fund develops the program curriculum, delivers intensive staff training, and provides program oversight and engages in evaluation. This is not your typical summer camp. In fact, it’s not summer camp at all - its CDF Freedom School! Each morning begins with harambee, meaning “to pull together” in Swahili. During harambee, CDF Freedom School program scholars participate in storytelling, reading aloud, motivational cheers, songs and chants. At the core of the CDF Freedom Schools experience is the culturally relevant curriculum that affirms the strength and value of scholars’ culture through literature - leading many to realize that they have more commonalities than differences. This is particularly exemplified in juvenile probation camps where there can often be racial and gang tension. In Los Angeles County, CDF Freedom Schools have thrived since first being implemented in 2013 thanks to a partnership with the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LAOCE), the Los Angeles County Probation Department and significant support from Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the California Endowment. This program is not only changing the narrative around education in juvenile justice facilities, it is promoting systemic and cultural change within the juvenile justice system overall.
“Normally, we would want a controlled situation, to have the youth separated and their movement limited,” said LeMar Ruffin, a Los Angeles County probation officer, who helps run the program at Camp Afflerbaugh. “But, here, to be able to have the scholars in one room, engaging and having fun together ... it’s an anomaly.”
Ruffin said he has seen firsthand a transformation in many of the young men who participate in the program. In fact, evaluation reports indicate participants’ behavior and interaction with their peers, teachers and probation officers improved throughout the program; there were significant decreases in suspensions and referrals at camps; and participants felt more empowered to give back to their communities. The success of the program in Los Angeles County led to the establishment of a CDF Freedom Schools at Camp Sweeney in partnership with Lincoln Child Center, Alameda County Probation Department and the Alameda County Office of Education.
Through the social action and civic engagement component of the CDF Freedom Schools program model, children and youth learn about community service and social justice advocacy. Participants take part in a variety of actions including visiting and writing letters to elected officials, joining together for marches and rallies and public education activities. And if you’re still not convinced about the value and uniqueness of the CDF Freedom Schools program, here are some other reasons to believe in this model:
Children’s reading abilities benefit directly from participation: One of the most exciting findings reported is the positive gain that scholars make in reading ability by participating in the CDF Freedom Schools program. The gains are also widespread, occurring among scholars in each age group.
Reading scores among students in the comparison group were also higher at the end of the summer than at the beginning, but they were not significantly higher. Comparison students enrolled in other academic programs improved their reading more than students who were not enrolled in academic programs, but neither group improved as much as CDF Freedom Schools program children improved.
Children demonstrated positive character development from participation: Parents of CDF Freedom Schools program scholars see more positive changes than parents of comparison students see among their children in attitudes toward learning, community involvement, conflict resolution skills, and acceptance of responsibility and social adjustment.
CDF Freedom Schools programs increase the effectiveness of parental involvement in their children’s education: CDF Freedom Schools programs help parents do a better job supporting their children’s academic development by exposing them to fun, high-energy teaching methodologies and imparting a greater understanding of children’s development and learning styles.
CDF Freedom Schools program facilitators, called servant leader interns, are chosen because they will be positive role models for children: Many servant leader interns are involved in their communities and campuses as leaders before joining CDF Freedom Schools program sites. They bring their assets to CDF Freedom Schools programs, and learn new skills there.
The CDF Freedom Schools program is life changing. And, it is a key part of Children Defense Fund - California’s work to ensure a level playing field for all children. I invite you to learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools program on our website or to contact us if you are interested in hosting a CDF Freedom Schools program, volunteering at a location, or providing financial support to ensure that each summer young people have an opportunity to learn and grow.