CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the early 1980s, Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church launched a free after-school program four days a week for low-income kids living in the Piedmont Courts public-housing project across the street.
In 2000, the church created a nonprofit known as Seigle Avenue Partners to expand the reach and fundraising of the after-school program, which initially served only a handful of kids.
Now known as Freedom School Partners, the nonprofit last summer served 600 children at 10 sites throughout Charlotte in a program it has developed in partnership the Children’s Defense Fund and local churches and schools.
And in the school year that just started, the nonprofit is piloting a year-round after-school program based on the summer program, serving 160 students at three sites, and it plans by 2016 to be serving 5,000 students.
“We’ve grown through partnerships,” says Mary Nell McPherson, executive director of Freedom School Partners. “We’re looking for and finding the base communities and the corporations who say, ‘What can I do to help low-income children succeed in school?'”
Launching a new Freedom school to serve 50 children costs about $50,000.
The six-week summer program runs Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Freedom School Partners pays the Children’s Defense Fund to provide the curriculum and training for the summer and after-school programs. It also pays interns and provides food and transportation for kids who participate.
The program integrates reading, conflict resolution, and social action in a curriculum that focuses on literacy and activities and promotes social, cultural and historical awareness.
While the program is free, parents are required to attend a monthly parents meeting to learn about how to help their kids be successful in school, and must volunteer at their child’s school once a month.
“Research shows that if parents are involved in school,” McPherson says, “kids do better in school.”
And the program makes a difference, she says.
Based on research by the Center for Adolescent Literacies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, roughly 65 percent of children who participated in the summer program this year increased their reading comprehension by at least a grade level.
And another 25 percent maintained their reading level, a big accomplishment because low-income kids typically lose a lot of reading comprehension over the summer, McPherson says.
“Even if you’re just maintaining,” she says, “you’re beating the odds.”
Freedom schools are a good model, she says.
“Scholars loved it,” she says. “Faith community partners loved it. Parents loved it. And it worked.”
In addition to the after-school program at Seigle Point, a housing development that has replaced the former public-housing project across the street from Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church, Freedom School Partners this year is piloting the program at Sedgefield Elementary School in partnership with Meyers Park United Methodist Church, and at Billingsville Elementary School in partnership with Myers Park Presbyterian Church.
Freedom School Partners is counting on partnerships to continue to expand the program, McPherson says.
“You build on people’s passions and on relationships,” she says.
The Freedom School model, she says, lets members of partner churches help serve children “in a way that works, in a way that you can participate meaningfully, and in a way that adds a lot of richness to the children’s lives and to your life.”