The test results are in, and a six-week reading program with its roots in the Civil Rights era showed it can reduce students' loss of skills over summer vacation.
The Charleston Freedom School launched in the summer of 2017 on the campus of the Charleston Progressive Academy, where it served about 50 low-income students from Memminger, James Simons, Mitchell and Sanders-Clyde elementary schools.
Freedom Schools trace their lineage to the 1960s, when Civil Rights activists created programs to educate African-American children left behind by segregated and discriminatory public schools in the South.
Today the Children's Defense Fund, founded by South Carolina native Marian Wright Edelman, provides curriculum and training for Freedom School summer and after-school programs. These programs reached 173 sites in 27 states last summer.
Students in the new Charleston program started each day with Harambe, a session of song and dance. They read books, received literacy instruction, took field trips to the College of Charleston, and learned about the art and history of the Gullah-Geechee culture.
"They were able to read books and saw characters that looked like them, that also probably faced some of the things that they did while they were growing up," said project director Adrienne Riley, who is also resident services coordinator for the Housing Authority of the City of Charleston.
While program leaders pointed to positive results, their sample size was small. Of the 50 students in the program, only 14 completed pre- and post-tests on the Basic Reading Inventory.
A report card from the Children's Defense Fund said students demonstrated an average of an 11-month increase in instructional reading levels. But only eight of the students showed an improvement at all, while six maintained their reading level. Many students started the summer reading behind grade level, Riley said.
Notably, none of the students in the sample showed a decline in their reading skills.
"When they went back to school, it probably clicked for them. The teachers made it fun," Riley said.
A September literature review from the Brookings Institution found students' achievement scores tend to decline by about one month's worth of schooling during a traditional summer break. The declines were sharper for math than reading.
The Brookings review also found a class-based gap in reading loss: Middle-class students tended to improve their reading scores over the summer, while students from low-income families lost ground.
That can be a major problem at schools like Sanders-Clyde, which reported that 94 percent of its students were living in poverty last school year. Only five students in the entire school met expectations on a state reading test that year.
Jon Hale, an associate professor of education at the College of Charleston and executive director of the Charleston Freedom School, said he hopes Freedom School programs gain momentum as policy makers grapple with how to improve education in high-poverty schools across South Carolina.
"It’s a model that can be replicated if the school district and state provide funding," he said.
Student applications are available for this summer's Charleston Freedom School, which will begin June 18. Families can pick up paper applications at any downtown elementary school or send an email to Hale at email@example.com. For more information, visit charlestonfreedomschool.com.