Not Your Average Summer School

02 Jul Not Your Average Summer School

Freedom Schools Program Grows Love for Learning

By Aurea Montes-Rodriguez


Mackenzie Birch (middle of row with braids) pumps her fist while getting fired up fo the first day of CDF Freedom Schools.

Mackenzie Birch is a bright, active fourth-grader at Baldwin Hills Magnet School. She has dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She loves to talk about her favorite books and looks forward to weekly trips to the library.

Mackenzie lives with her father and grandmother in Baldwin Village. Her father, Mack Birch, proudly proclaims that “Mackenzie is the star of the family.” He and Mackenzie are excited about another summer of Community Coalition’s Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools.

Freedom Schools is a nationally renowned summer education enrichment program founded by civil rights leader Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, who is president of Children’s Defense Fund. The purpose is to nurture children’s love of reading and improve their proficiency in it, while connecting to their culture, having fun and participating in community service and social action.

For the third summer in a row, Community Coalition is operating a CDF Freedom Schools program for about one hundred South L.A. elementary, middle and now high school students. But it is not your typical summer school.

Every morning the “scholars” start their day with a harambee – a ritual of self-affirmation through motivating cheers, chants and singing. A special guest reads a selection aloud to them, usually something related to civil rights, before they break into groups for a day of engaging reading and studying. The teachers are college students often from the same communities as the participants.

Although Mackenzie has always enjoyed reading, her involvement in Freedom Schools has taken her love of learning to the next level. “I really think she has kept her academic advantage because of Freedom Schools’ emphasis in reading,” her father said. “Now we make our weekly trips to the library because it feeds the appetite we all have for reading.”

In 2011, Community Coalition began partnering with CDF after LAUSD eliminated 90% of summer school programs due to budget cuts.

“While children in affluent communities continue to learn during the summer through travel or academic camps, children from poorer communities often experience a major learning loss due to the lack of affordable educational opportunities,” explained Community Coalition President and CEO Marqueece Harris-Dawson. “We believe programs like these can help close the achievement gap for students of color.”

The program has been transformative for the entire Birch family. “Freedom Schools has inspired me. I recently went back to school and finished a certification course,” Birch said. “It has also given us an opportunity to get involved with activities in the community. It is like having another family.”

Among the cadre of college students recruited to teach at Community Coalition’s Freedom Schools is Malik Johnson, a 19-year-old junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta. One of the most rewarding aspects of the program is the bond he creates with the students, Johnson said. Last year, he stayed connected with a high school senior in the program who was applying to college.

“Terrick committed to apply to Morehouse. He followed through and was accepted,” Johnson said. “Now we’ll both be in school together and I’ll be able to provide him with support.”

The Coalition’s CDF Freedom Schools has many fans, including husband and wife Hollywood philanthropists J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath. “Marian Wright Edelman was a true visionary when she created this program,” said McGrath, who is a CDF board member. “J.J. and I are proud to see the power of Freedom Schools grow every year. And we are particularly honored to lock arms with Community Coalition to provide an enriching, culturally relevant and fun-filled summer for youth in South L.A.”


Aurea Montes-Rodriguez is vice president of organizational growth at Community Coalition.

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