Freedom Schools -- Supporting Our Children
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I grew up in what people call a “broken home.” My father was out of the picture. My mother had a mental illness. We were poor, and in fourth grade I got mononucleosis as a result of being malnourished. Then, when I was 12, something lucky happened. Gary Miller, the admissions director of Horace Mann (a college prep school in New York City) took an interest in me, offered me a place at the school, and arranged for a near total scholarship. For me, school was a safe space when home was not, and for that gift I will always be grateful.
Every day I showed up at school, whether or not I was late, or had or had not done my homework, I could tell that my teachers looked at me and thought, “Great, she is here. Let’s learn something.” I was surrounded by other kids who loved learning, and who read more than was asked or required. Horace Mann embodied a culture of engagement and potential, rather than performance and punishment. The faculty refused to see me as the mediocre student that my grades showed that I was, and as a result I established an academic foundation that would take me through college and graduate school.
Watching the children who live in Indianapolis today, I often think of my childhood. There are a number of broken homes on my block, and every summer, I am struck by how many of our children – potential scholars one and all – will never have the same transformational educational experience that I had. Low-income families often rely on family members to provide coverage when school is out over the summer; I watched a twelve-year-old be responsible for five younger brothers ages three through seven. It is during the summer, that learning loss occurs and the educational disparity gap between white children and children of color becomes established. Seeing this, and knowing it could be otherwise, fills me with grief and responsibility.
There is a growing group of people who are interested in having Children's Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® be part of the summer learning landscape within Indianapolis. This six-week summer program features a model, culturally appropriate curriculum that emphasizes reading, writing, mentoring, leadership, and conflict resolution. Freedom Schools help children and young adults to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves and in their families, schools, communities, nation, and world. For many participants, it will be their transformational educational experience; the place they are known as scholars instead of as failures. My congregation, All Souls Unitarian Church, has been approved as a CDF Freedom School site for this summer, set to open June 20, 2016. We will still be the only CDF Freedom School® in the state, but many more are needed. Research has shown that over half the achievement gap between lower-income and higher-income students to due to lack of access to a summer learning opportunity. This leads to fewer low-income students graduating high school.
With over 300 CDF Freedom Schools nationwide, we already have the empirical evidence and personal testimonials to know that Freedom Schools are a good investment if we want children to succeed. When a son or daughter attends a Freedom School, parents are likely to hear for the first time, “But Mama, I want to go to school,” a phrase which works to bolster parent engagement. Last summer, 85% of participants in Indianapolis’ sole Freedom School gained literacy skills, whereas a comparable student would have lost two months’ worth of reading skill. This means that participating children began the school year ready to learn, which helps them, their teachers, and their schools. Significant gains like this, compounded summer after summer, tangibly work to reduce the learning disparities that plague our educational system.
Freedom Schools hold the key to some of the changes for which we have been yearning. We invite you to be part of growing a CDF Freedom School movement here in Indianapolis. Visit: www.facebook.com/IndyFreedomSchool and allsoulsindy.org.
Rev. Anastassia Zinke is the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church. All Souls has been approved as a host site for a Children's Defense Fund Freedom School, and Rev. Zinke and her congregation are working to be but one site among many. She is active with three local interfaith organizations: the Interfaith Hospitality Network, IndyCAN and the Center for Interfaith Cooperation.”