After Pandemic-Induced Hiatus, Deaconess Foundation CDF Freedom Schools Return to St. Louis

A Freedom School scholar enjoying his class.

After a two-year hiatus caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis welcomed back students to its Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools, held this past summer. The seven-week enrichment program took place at four locations throughout the Greater St. Louis area: Christ the King UCC in Florissant, Mo.; Peace UCC in Webster Groves, Mo.; and Saint John’s Church (The Beloved Community) UCC and Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being, both in St. Louis.

“We were thrilled to once again welcome scholars and their families and caregivers to join us for our fourth year of Deaconess-sponsored CDF Freedom Schools,” said Constance Harper, Deaconess Foundation’s vice president of policy, advocacy, and strategic initiatives. “Recognizing the impact of the past two years of relentless collective trauma, social and emotional wellness activities were woven into lessons this summer for the scholars and workshops for their families and caregivers.”

The CDF Freedom Schools are intergenerational, multicultural, culturally competent summer programs, built on literacy, leadership and social advocacy. Since 1995, some 160,000 young scholars and their families have participated at sites across the United States. Additionally, 19,000 college students and graduates have been trained as servant leaders to help facilitate the program at the various host sites.

The Deaconess-sponsored program is open to all students K-5th grade. It provides literacy building activities, empowerment, meals, snacks, and activities — including field trips — at no charge to families. The CDF model includes testing and evaluation to measure academic progress. The 2022 Freedom Schools included more than 100 young scholars and their families, a number sure to increase in the future.

To assuage concerns regarding COVID, Deaconess Foundation consulted with the host sites, school district partners and local health data in order to develop a COVID-19 safety plan for 2022. The plan ensured that scholars, their families and caregivers, and all staff and volunteers remained safe and well.

One of Deaconess’ partner organizations for the Freedom Schools is Alive & Well Communities, a St. Louis organization that works to help communities heal by re-orienting the trauma-informed movement, which has historically failed to recognize the trauma caused by racism and other forms of oppression as a critical component of the work. In previous years, Alive & Well trained staff on the trauma-informed approach to care. But this year, it was engaged to hold sessions with participating Freedom School families. Workshops on self-care and trauma awareness gave the families the tools to tend to themselves and each other well beyond the end of the summer program.

Scholars and servant leaders with City of St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. Jones was one of the guests who read her favorite book to the scholars.

“It was important for us to create an invitation and space for healing and not ignore the lasting impact the pandemic has had on our children and families,” Harper said.

The Freedom Schools host sites have become strong advocates for the program over the years. For example, Peace UCC began cautiously, but now looks forward to each summer. The Rev. Wendy Bruner, pastor, first introduced the idea of becoming a host site to the congregation in 2016.

“The congregation, concerned about ongoing support, initially voted to try it for one year,” says the Rev. Jen Einspahr, associate pastor. “That first year was transformative! Members of the congregation, almost to a person, were involved. We created many ways for people to participate — donations of snacks, supervision at afternoon free time, assistance during breakfast and lunch, and much more. The response was phenomenal. The ministry seemed to lead us naturally to be much more active engagement in other work for systemic justice.”

Peace UCC hopes to enroll 50 scholars in 2023.

Key to the Freedom Schools’ success is the CDF’s Integrated Reading Curriculum, in which books, activities, field trips, and games all relate to and reinforce each other. All the books used reflect participants’ own images and reinforce the CDF Freedom Schools theme, “I can make a difference.” This year, the Deaconess program included a project director, four site coordinators, and 13 servant leader interns.

But the largest takeaway in the 2022 edition of the Deaconess CDF Freedom Schools was the enthusiastic response of the participants. As one parent commented, “It’s an amazing opportunity for children to be safe, learn, and grow.” Another said, “I liked how excited my scholar was to return each day.”

“It brought such joy to have the buzz and energy of young scholars back in the buildings for the Freedom Schools,” said Harper. “The moments that remind us of the profound rippling effect and lasting impressions that the Freedom Schools curriculum has on young scholars and their communities is when we have family members contact us after the summer to share how their children are more confident readers at home, or are now reading above grade level according to their schools.”

The CDF Freedom Schools curriculum is rooted in the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Summer and was originally proposed in 1964 by the Rev. Charles Cobb, the first executive director of the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice. Then a college student and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Cobb proposed the Freedom Schools for young Black Mississippians who suffered in an educational environment geared to eliminating intellectual curiosity and different thinking. The SNCC program — which began thanks to the hard work of Cobb, Marian Wright Edeleman (founder and president emerita of the CDF), and others — was designed to empower young people to articulate questions, demands, desires, and plans for action. The first schools were taught by such renowned leaders as historian and college professor Howard Zinn and activist Stokely Charmichael. Based on the original SNCC model, Edelman created CDF Freedom Schools in 1995.

Learn more about the Deaconess 2023 CDF Freedom Schools in St. Louis.

Learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools across the country.

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