A very special class of UNC Charlotte scholars converged on campus last summer for a six-week literacy program birthed by the Civil Rights movement.
The 50 elementary and middle school students were enrolled in Freedom Schools, developed by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in 1995 to help close the equality gap in the U.S. education system. The free program is modeled after efforts in Southern states in the 1960s to educate African Americans in sub-par schools.
Organizers designed the curriculum to “help children fall in love with reading, increase their self-esteem and generate more positive attitudes toward learning,” according to the CDF Web site. The program also seeks to prevent the learning loss that students often experience during summer months.
In 2010, nearly 10,000 children participated in Freedom Schools at more than 140 sites around the country. Each site pays for books, food, field trips and stipends for staff.
The schools, usually hosted by churches, have been in the Charlotte region for more than six years. This year, with funding assistance from the Chancellor’s Diversity Challenge Fund, UNC Charlotte was chosen as one of two new Charlotte sites, and became one of few sites in the country housed on a university campus.
– Bruce Taylor, Director, Center for Adolescent Literacies
Sherell Fuller, a clinical assistant professor of education, accepted the UNC Charlotte site coordinator position with enthusiasm.
Freedom School scholars are selected from schools with high percentages of students receiving free and reduced lunch. On a typical day, the scholars were bused to the University, ate breakfast, started instruction with chants and cheers and delved into the proscribed integrated reading curriculum. A presentation by an outside speaker, field trip or other activity occupied the afternoon, until 3 p.m. when the scholars departed for home.
Fuller explained that the scholars benefit from and enjoy the exposure to new and different activities. But, she noted, the exposure they received to the University campus might have made the biggest impression.
“We got into a discussion about what a college degree looks like, so I brought them to my office,” she said. Fuller explained to the scholars that she isn’t the kind of doctor that gives shots.
UNC Charlotte faculty from various disciplines volunteered to host workshops for the scholars.
“We talked about junior college and community college, and we talked about trades because everyone might not want to go to college — we talked about the importance of education,” Fuller said. “They were asking questions about what it’s like to stay on a college campus. This is a powerful, unintended consequence of having UNC Charlotte as a site.”
The scholars also benefitted from interacting with college students. At the UNC Charlotte site, five of the six instructors were UNC Charlotte students, and half were education majors. Seventeen UNC Charlotte students taught at Freedom School sites in the region last summer.
At a time when test scores show a persistent achievement gap between white students and black and Latino students, proponents say literacy efforts like Freedom Schools can improve outcomes. A 2009 pilot study of two Freedom Schools’ programs in the Charlotte region, conducted by UNC Charlotte’s Institute for Social Capital (ISC), lends credence to this assertion.
Bruce Taylor, one of the researchers behind the ISC study and director of the Center for Adolescent Literacies at UNC Charlotte, said the findings from the evaluation indicate the Freedom Schools’ model positively impacted children in grades two through five, increasing their ability to read. 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.
Taylor later spearheaded a similar study of 11 Freedom Schools in the Charlotte region. He said initial data analysis mirrors the findings of the pilot study.
“This is a group of kids we’re most concerned about — they’re struggling, and we’re struggling to meet their needs,” Taylor said. “If Freedom Schools have found a way to effectively engage them, I’d like to see what elements of the Freedom Schools’ experience can be brought into their regular classrooms.”