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Founded in 2006, the Bethany Cares Inc., Children's Defense Fund Freedom School Project, is a six-week academic summer program designed to serve primarily low-income children in Newark. Bethany Baptist Church, under the leadership of Pastor M. William Howard, launched this program to directly address the achievement gap among Newark students. The latest data shows that over 35% of children under 18 in Newark live below the poverty line. With one of the highest drop-out rates in the U. S., Newark school children need quality academic summer programs to support their school year learning.
The Bethany CDF Freedom School offers a transformative summer learning experience for Newark youth. Each summer, the program provides 120 "scholars" between the ages of 5 and 14 years old with a highly academic summer experience that will instill in them the belief that they can make a difference (the Freedom School Theme) through a focus on literacy, cultural heritage, parental involvement, and social action. Children begin each day at Freedom School in a 30-45 minute Harambee!--a call to order of chants and cheers--that is used to energize participants every morning, make announcements for the day and highlight one book and grade for the day with scholars and visitors taking turns reading out loud to participants. Every year over three fourths of the scholars return from the previous year. The Freedom School program model is designed to help under-performing children accelerate their learning with the goal of attaining proficiency in core literacy skills. The majority of parents and principals report that children who have attended the Bethany CDF Freedom School are more focused and engaged in learning when they return to school and all report how much the children enjoy reading. The program requires parents to participate in weekly parent engagement sessions. And due to this, our data shows that over 90% of parents report that the Bethany Freedom School increased their engagement in their child's education
The Bethany CDF Freedom Schools also serves as a youth employment initiative. Each summer 25 high school and college students serve as mentors and teachers in the program. Unlike most summer programs, the college student teachers receive over two weeks of training from the national CDC office in Tennessee and locally, and the majority of our college teachers are employed in the program for two or more summers. The program also offers a career ladder for students that helps the program maintain some consistency--scholars have become high school "junior interns", high school students have become college servant leaders and the college servant leaders have become site coordinators.
One of the subthemes of the Bethany Freedom School has been sustainable living and healthy communities. Through our social action projects and parent meetings we have engaged scholars and parents in how to live sustainably. Activities have included-healthy snacks, cooking classes, planting gardens, and courses on reducing your carbon footprint, creating toys/games out of recycled materials, meditation and yoga practices, shopping healthy, etc. Scholars have also engaged in advocating for health care reform and voter registration drives.
- PV Griffin
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