Freedom Schools Provide Haven of Support and Learning for Students in Peoplestown

By Rev. Kenya A. Thompson
Director of Leadership Development and Education
Emmaus House

Nasir Atkins was one of our most energetic and enthusiastic scholars participating in the annual Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools program this summer, now in its seventh year. During our opening activity each morning, Harambee, which means “all pull together,” we would often find the 7-year-old leading the chants and cheers and encouraging his classmates to sing along.

His enthusiasm in activities was also evident in the classroom when it was time to read. Nasir’s initial reading assessment indicated that he was reading below grade level. Despite this, Nasir always wanted to read in class with his teacher and volunteers one on one. After weeks of doing this, he became more comfortable reading with his peers in small groups.

He became confident sounding out words and using other tools he learned in school that were reinforced at Freedom School. Nasir was able to read two chapters from a Level 2 book by the last week of the program—one that was assigned to students in a higher grade level. His final assessment indicated Nasir’s reading increased by three levels.

Progress like this wouldn’t be possible without the support of Coaching for Literacy, a nonprofit agency that uses the power of sports to raise awareness about the problem of illiteracy and to generate financial support for literacy programs nationwide. Through its partnership with International Paper, Coaching for Literacy supplied the critical infrastructure for this programming. During an average summer, students may lose up to two months’ worth of learning. This “summer slide” accounts for more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.

CDF Freedom Schools has provided a haven of support, love, and learning for elementary-aged students living in the Peoplestown neighborhood and surrounding communities, located a mile south of downtown Atlanta. This summer, we served 40 K – 3 scholars, all of whom identify as African American or black.

The six-week literacy and cultural enrichment program is designed to serve children in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, expensive, or nonexistent. The program enhances children’s motivation to read, connects families to resources, and has been a critical resource for residents in and around Peoplestown even before the pandemic impacted learning loss.

The progress that Nasir and students make would not be possible without champions who provide necessary resources that help make reading engaging and fun. Funding from Coaching for Literacy enabled Emmaus House, in partnership with the Get Georgia Reading—Campaign for Grade Level Reading, to transition the program to meet the educational and socio-emotional needs of K – 3 children, funding critical supplies, training, books, and literacy kits.

“We love the camp, the staff, and the volunteers,” said Tamika Cooper, parent of Cameron Cooper. “I am thankful that they make each and every summer fun for the kids and a very special environment for parents.”

Freedom Schools provide a safe, supportive space for scholars to increase their literacy, develop social-emotional skills, and have fun. This literacy and enrichment program supports the local schools’ efforts to improve students reading skills. The opening cheers and chants reflect the program’s priorities:

“There’s no school like Freedom School!
Reading books is really cool!
Gaining knowledge through the words!
I’m down with Freedom Schools, haven’t you heard?”

On average, scholars assessed in grades K – 3 demonstrated an increase of two grade levels. Freedom School has a positive impact on the children and families in the community, and we’re already looking forward to the 2023 program.