What Can We Learn From Freedom Schools

If the public education system can't or won't serve black kids, we have to come up with alternatives, says the Children's Defense Fund. 

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Children at a CDF Freedom School (Children's Defense Fund)

(The Root) -- The Children's Defense Fund's Cameron Van Patterson, presenting at a strategy session at the NAACP Leadership 500 Summit in Naples, Fla., on Friday, said there's an alternative to simply pushing for reforms to a public education system that too often fails black kids.

"I'm speaking in this instance in terms of the African-American community," Van Patterson told The Root. "When it comes to education, some of the structural challenges are real, but if those challenges can't be overcome for whatever reason, then we need to come up with alternatives, and people are doing that. "

A model alternative, he said, is the CDF's Freedom Schools summer-enrichment program. Implemented by faith-based and community-based organizations in 82 cities across the country, it's taught more than 100,000 American children since 1995. The six- to eight-week reading-focused curriculum offers all-day academic enrichment supplemented by parent and community involvement, nutrition and health support and a "Harambee" ("let's pull together") theme to kids in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The programs have results, said Van Patterson, citing data on prevention of summer-reading loss and increasing reading comprehension for the kids who participate. But it's not just those inside the organization, founded by Marian Wright Edelman in 1973, who are believers in the model. The Harvard Family Research Projects highlighted the program as having "demonstrated success in providing quality learning opportunities for youth." United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2011, "I've been to hundreds and hundreds of schools around the country, and I will tell you that my visits to Freedom Schools have been among my most inspiring and most memorable."

The factors that make the program successful, Van Patterson said, are 1) a rigorous curriculum with high standards for student achievement, 2) a program that motivates youth to learn in and outside of the classroom, 3) comprehensive services and supports for families and students and 4) community engagement and strategic partnerships that integrate school and nonschool supports to ensure the students have the skills they need to succeed.

"Our children are confronted by challenges that are unique, overwhelming and that other children are not necessarily facing. If the school system doesn't have our children's interests at heart and isn't making their interests a priority, or isn't capable of doing that, we should not just expect it," he told The Root. "We need to embrace that responsibility, take ownership of it and implement some of the things our children need. "

The NAACP's Leadership 500 summit's strategy sessions are designed to yield recommendations related to the organization's national agenda, which are reviewed by the organization's board of directors at its annual national conference.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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