What started as a civil rights movement in the 1960s has made its way to Evanston’s Fifth Ward. The Garrett-Evanston Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program, which grew out of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, is currently in its third year of providing a free six-week summer learning program for third- through eighth-grade students in School District 65.

Some Background

The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project was a political action program organized by civil rights organizations in 1964 to engage students and community members in specific activities aimed at ensuring basic rights for all Mississippians. Among those activities was the creation of Freedom Schools, a summer education program for Black children.  The curriculum focused not only on academics, but also on boosting both self-esteem and community engagement.

Fast forward to 1995, and the Freedom Schools movement was reinvigorated on a large scale by the Children’s Defense Fund with the goal of transforming the vision of education. In 1995, two CDF Freedom School sites opened, in Bennettsville, S.C., and Kansas City, Mo.  Since then, the movement has spread across the country. In summer 2017, CDF Freedom Schools included 173 program sites in 89 cities and 27 states, including Washington, D.C.

An assessment of students attending 90 Freedom Schools in 20 states in 2017 found that 84% of the children maintained or gained in reading levels and did not experience summer learning loss, according to information provided by the Children’s Defense Fund.

Evanston’s Version

The Garrett-Evanston CDF Freedom Schools Program opened in 2015, thanks in large part to the efforts of Rev. Virginia Lee and Rev. Reggie Blount of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University. 

“They recognized a need in Evanston – particularly in the Fifth Ward, where there is no local public school – to have a place for kids to engage in learning,” said Amy Sanchez, the new site coordinator for the Freedom School. 

The Garrett-Evanston program began at Ebenezer AME Church but has been located at Family Focus for the past two years. 

During the six-week summer session, students meet Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. They receive two meals and a snack each day. Trained college/seminary/graduate students – who are not required to be from Northwestern – work as “servant leader interns” to facilitate programming and act as role models for the participants.

The curriculum goals are based on five essential components: high-quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

Each day after breakfast, students celebrate Harambee, which means “pull together” in Swahili. They sing, dance, cheer and chant to get centered and focus on the day, said Ms. Sanchez. After that, there is a read-aloud with a guest member of the community.  

“We see reading as fundamental for everything, including a career,” said Ms. Sanchez. Guest readers are also role models. Local business owners, City leaders and the President of Garrett have read at the School, which Ms. Sanchez says, “shows the richness of the community.”

Reading fills the remainder of the morning with a three-hour integrated curriculum that encourages kids to think, act and talk about what they have read. Activities like the Social Action Project have kids thinking about social change and then creating a protest sign to illustrate it.

Following lunch and recess are more activities. Some are just for fun, like slime making, and others emphasize social action, like an organized debate and vote on class field trips.

Classes also go on field trips. “We provide rich experiences to expand literacy,” said Ms. Sanchez. 

The Schools’ pre- and post-reading scores are showing “huge gains,” Ms. Sanchez says. 

According to the CDF website, their Freedom Schools program “boosts student motivation to read, generates more positive attitudes toward learning, increases self-esteem and connects the needs of children and families to the resources of their communities. Since 1995, more than 137,000 pre-K through 12th grade children have had a CDF Freedom Schools experience, and more than 18,000 college students and recent graduates have been trained by CDF to deliver this empowering model.”

This summer, 35 students are enrolled at the Garrett-Evanston School.  Students must apply to be considered for the program. Since there are no costs to families, the program has high expectations, accepting only those committed to academics and parent involvement. The application process for next summer will begin in March 2019. More information is available on the Garrett website, (https://www.garrett.edu/public-theology/garrett-evanston-cdf-freedom-schools-program).