Freedom Schools Program Cultivates a Love of Reading in Peoplestown

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

When 7-year-old Za’Kharia began participating in the annual Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools program this summer, she was reluctant to engage with her peers inside and outside of the classroom. She cried every morning the first week and needed encouragement to participate in Harambee, our opening activity, which means, “all pull together.” She also was hesitant to read out loud and communicate with classmates in the classroom setting.

Za’Kharia’s initial reading assessment indicated that she was reading below grade level. However, when we paired her with another scholar and an assistant servant leader teacher for small group reading, we noticed that she discerned others’ needs and offered classmates help when they got stuck on words. During our Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) time, Za’Kharia liked to help her peers choose books to read.

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 illiteracy and to generate financial support for literacy programs nationwide. Through its partnership with International Paper, Coaching for Literacy supplies the infrastructure for this programming, which includes curriculum, books, and highly qualified staff.

During an average summer, students may lose up to two months’ of learning. This “summer slide” accounts for more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.

CDF Freedom Schools, now in its eighth year, is designed to serve children in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, expensive, or nonexistent. The six-week literacy and cultural enrichment program is a critical resource for residents in and around Peoplestown neighborhood, located a mile south of downtown Atlanta.

Freedom Schools scholars have the opportunity to increase their literacy, develop social-emotional skills, and have fun. The program enhances children’s motivation to read, connects families to resources, and supports local schools’ efforts to improve students’ reading skills. This summer, we served 41 K – 3 scholars, all of whom identify as African American or black.

Za’Kharia made significant social-emotional strides after participating in small group reading. By the last week of the program, Za’Kharia was participating in the reading circle and reading out loud. She was able to receive one-on-one help—and to help others, which motivated her to participate. Za’Kharia demonstrated a love of reading, often requesting more DEAR time.

This growth is possible thanks to champions who provide necessary resources that help make reading engaging and fun. Funding from Coaching for Literacy, in partnership with the Get Georgia Reading—Campaign for Grade Level Reading, enabled Emmaus House to meet the needs of K – 3 children.

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 2024 program.

Read “Going the Extra Mile.”