Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools offer hope for education challenges | Guestview

In nearly every sector, the pandemic exacerbated extant challenges, and education is no exception. The effects of learning loss, teacher shortages and disparities in access feel more pressing than ever, and yet there is reason to be optimistic. Effective, evidence-based interventions do exist. One of those is Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools.

At the University of West Florida College of Education and Professional Studies, our faculty conduct research to better understand and identify solutions to challenges facing educators. This scholarship informs how we prepare teacher candidates for the classroom.

In the fall of 2020, the Freedom School president and board reached out to our teacher education program to discuss how UWF could become involved. Through our discussions, we identified that a partnership would be mutually beneficial, and Dr. Karen Evans, a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education and Educational Leadership was identified as the liaison who would develop a partnership. Evans reached out to UWF alumni and students to fill staff positions. Briana McCreary, an alumna of UWF's Educational Leadership program, was chosen as one of the site coordinators, and Jacquelynne Poling, a recent graduate of our ESE/Elementary program, was selected to serve as a servant leader intern.

William Crawley .
William Crawley .

The CDF Freedom Schools program is a free, six-week summer literacy and cultural enrichment initiative that serves children in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, too expensive or non-existent.

With origins in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which brought college students from across the country to Mississippi to secure justice and voting rights for Black citizens, CDF Freedom Schools continue to engage college students as instructors - servant leader interns - and build a love of reading and sense of empowerment in young students, referred to as scholars. Scholars learn about histories that are often overlooked in traditional curricula, and read books featuring characters of color, written by authors of color.

The Central Gulf Coast CDF Freedom Schools targets elementary school children living in areas of concentrated poverty and/or who attend consistently low performing elementary schools in Escambia County. This is the demographic group most at-risk for pandemic-related learning loss. As demonstrated in a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of low-income parents were very concerned about their children falling behind as a result of disruptions caused by the pandemic.

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This disparity is also manifest in summer learning loss. Recent research shows that the average student loses 17-34% of the prior year’s learning gains across the summer months, and those students who have experienced learning loss in one summer were more prone to also lose ground in subsequent summers. Again CDF Freedom Schools offer promise. Nationally, more than 81% of participating Freedom Schools student scholars avoided summer reading loss. At the Central Gulf Coast CDF Freedom Schools specifically, 87% experienced no reading loss according to the basic reading inventory, which is used to measure scholars’ reading proficiency before and after Freedom School.

CDF Freedom Schools employs a research-based integrated reading curriculum that features a diverse body of children’s literature that celebrates multiple racial and cultural identities. Essentially the program makes reading enjoyable through books that are relatable and empowering. This is critical to creating lifelong readers, especially at a time when National Assessment of Educational Progress data show that among U.S. children, reading for fun has become less common. During the 2021 summer program, CGC Freedom Schools scholars read an average of 18.6 books per week during the six-week program.

Another challenge facing K-12 education that has been making news headlines of late is the national teacher shortage. Teacher shortages predate the pandemic and are the result of a host of factors. While there is no magic bullet, the CDF Freedom Schools model does address one crucial factor: Teacher development and mentoring that effectively create a stable pipeline of educators.

Central to CDF Freedom Schools is its intergenerational leadership model. The program is staffed primarily by college students and recent college graduates, with a 10:1 child to adult ratio. The program is designed not only to impact the scholars, but also the college-age men and women who teach them. The program employs site coordinators who are experienced educators; these site coordinators offer their experience and insights to the servant leader interns. Programs that provide teacher candidates with an expert teacher mentor in a clinical setting have proven to be an effective tool in creating a strong and stable teaching force.

After the proven success of the program during the summer of 2021, a formal memorandum of understanding was signed between our College and Central Gulf Coast CDF Freedom School. We will continue to provide faculty and staff support, and I became a member of the board. This year, the board has worked hard to raise the $100,000 needed to grow the program to 50 young scholars in Summer 2022. Freedom School now offers a space where UWF teacher candidates can complete their first field experience course during the summer months. McCreary will again serve as the site coordinator, and five of the six servant leader interns are UWF students.

The beauty of education is that its ripple effects are beyond quantification. I am hopeful that these 50 young scholars will carry with them and share not only a love of reading, but the sense that they can inspire change in themselves, their families, their schools, their communities, their country and the world.

William Crawley is the dean of the University of West Florida College of Education and Professional Studies. He sits on the board of the Central Gulf Coast CDF Freedom Schools.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools offer hope for education challenges