For five weeks beginning each June, students all over the country attend Freedom School programs, created by the Children's Defense Fund. According to that organization's founder, Marian Wright Edelman, the programs have five essential components: high quality academic enrichment, parent and family involvement, social action and civic engagement, intergenerational servant leadership development, and physical and mental health.
Those components are supported by a strong focus on reading, discussion, positive reinforcement and recreation.
"We keep them in a very nurtured environment. We keep them in a very learned and academic environment. And it's fun. It's submerged with fun and a lot of camaraderie," Cowan said.
The HCDC Freedom School serves children on Chicago's South Side. Its staff members work hard to accomplish the goals of the program, one of which is to combat so-called "summer learning loss."
"When we look at the purpose of Freedom School, we wanted to keep them safe," Freedom School Exec. Dir. Derrick Jones said. "We also wanted to have healthy minds so that what they've learned over the school year would not be lost over the summer."
According to the National Summer Learning Association, students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer break than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer.
The Association also says research shows students lose approximately two months of grade-level equivalency in math computation skills over the summer, and low income students lose more than two months in reading achievement during the break.
But HCDC organizers say Freedom School "scholars," as they're called, stay sharp by reading at least five books over summer vacation.
"Our major focus is to keep them academically strong, to keep them learning to read, loving to read," Cowan said.
The 'School' Day
Scholars are encouraged to have fun. On the day ABC7 visited, they even applied that to the way they dressed as they celebrated 'Oh, No You Didn't!' Day.
Each Freedom School day begins at 8 a.m. with 'Harambee!,' which means 'unity' or 'togetherness' in Swahili. It's a ritual, of sorts, in which the scholars and their leaders bond and prepare themselves for the day through high-energy chants, cheers and motivational songs.
Next, the scholars separate into the appropriate grade levels for Integrated Reading Curriculum, time they spend reading aloud in groups or alone.
Each level completes at least one book per week.
"Reading is essential," Jones said. "We think that is vital in this day and age, in regards to daily living and daily activities. If they learn to love to read, then they will do better in life."
After a morning snack break, the scholars continue reading until lunch time. Freedom School afternoons can be marked by various activities, like recreation or practicing for the program's closing ceremony.
Social Action and Stop the Violence
Scholars also spend time in meaningful discussion with their leaders about issues facing their communities.
"They have a Social Action that they prepare for, and Social Action is just an activity that we take throughout an entire day where we recognize an issue in the world that affects our children. This year, it was health care," Jones said.
"I don't know, but I've been told, we need health care before we're old!" a group of young children chanted while marching with signs and posters inside their classroom.
Another issue on the minds of the older scholars was the gun violence plaguing their neighborhoods and threatening their lives.
"When I go back to school, I'm kind of scared--not scared, but [it has a lot of gangs], and it's too much," 16-year-old scholar DaQuan Dilworth told a group of teens assembled with their class leader. "I don't know what might happen to this school."
Organizers say Freedom School is a safe place where young people can give voice to their concerns, talk about ways to stop the violence, and carry those strategies with them back to their communities.
"We don't know how to communicate either. I'm angry or upset, and I don't really know how to express my feelings. So, I just do what? Shoot," Freedom School staff member Halisi Muhammad told the group of teens.
However, the program is preventive against violence because it teaches scholars about anger management and positive conflict resolution.
"They do leave the program empowered to do better. That's a goal that we focus on, and I know that's a subjective goal, but often, it's reached because we see the change in the student from the start of the program to the end," said Jones.
Staff members also say attending Freedom School from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week reduces the chances that the children and teens would engage in destructive or violent activities during their summer down time.
"One thing about children is that they're going to be active. So, it's our job to create positive activity. Left unchecked, they would be subject to all of the environmental things of not having an active mind and the things that are going on in the community," Cowan said.
The economic downturn affecting the global community has also touched Freedom School programs, which are offered at no cost to the students.
Organizers tell ABC7 each program site has to raise its own money. They say a lack of resources is why the HCDC Freedom School, serving 85 scholars, was the only one left in the city of Chicago this past summer.
During the summer of 2007, there were four, Jones said.
"Freedom School, much like freedom, is not free," said Cowan.
"We have to raise in excess of $40,000 for the five-week program. So, those times can be hard in terms of raising money in this time of recession," Jones said.
Still, staff members and scholars are optimistic about HCDC Freedom School's future.
"We would like to increase our numbers to at least 100 scholars next year," Jones said. "And we do know that we have a need in the community because we did have a waiting list this year."
"I wrote this poem about Freedom School to show the real importance of it and how it's not just a regular summer program," scholar Evan Dentley said to the audience at the program's closing ceremony. "Freedom School is a seen as a reading enrichment program for kids big and small, but it's really a life enrichment program for all."
Freedom School's leaders have already begun making plans for summer 2010.
For more information about HCDC Freedom School, please contact:
Executive Director, Freedom School
Heritage Community Development Corporation