Freedom School Probation Camps Deliver Results

The United States imprisons approximately 70,000 youths nationwide on any given day. Annually, the U.S. spends about $88,000 per juvenile—the costliest and highest youth incarceration rate in the world.

So, the non-profit advocacy organization, Children’s Defense Fund, has created a model program that inspires incarcerated youths to enjoy reading and increase their self-esteem; the goal is to help them reform their lives and stay out of the justice system.  The CDF Freedom Schools program, which originally began as a general school summer camp to prevent reading loss during summer vacation, came to Los Angeles County probation camps last year.

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Anecdotally, the program seemed successful; the joyful enthusiasm of children and their mentors was infectious even to casual onlookers. So, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has been an advocate and sponsor of Freedom Schools throughout his district, commissioned a study to quantify the results. Evaluators, consultants, CDF-CA staff and Second District staff conducted a total of 75 hours of informal observations at the probation camps which participated in the program.

The results of the study are overwhelmingly positive: the students’ interest in reading grew, behavioral problems—including fights among the juveniles—decreased, and the relationship between staff and students improved significantly. Most importantly, the young students seemed to get the bug for learning.

“What I like most about Freedom Schools is we got teachers who care,” noted one student. “My teacher, she cares, so you gotta respect her. I like her like my grandma.”

The CDF Freedom Schools program is unique:  The sessions begin with Harambee! (A Swahili word that means Let’s Pull Together), a 30-minute activity where participants sing motivational songs, cheers and chants, read aloud, and share a moment of reflection. The curriculum is focused on culturally relevant books that reflect their images and center on the theme “I can Make a Difference.” Everything is dropped for 15 minutes before lunch except reading in D.E.A. R. (Drop Everything and Read) Time. And the kids are treated with respect, including being referred to as “scholars.”

“Freedom Schools helped me with my vocabulary,” said another scholar. “We have a word wall, now I know all of these big words like ‘empathy,’ you know, like ‘bombastic,’ and there are a lot of more difficult words. It’s improved my vocabulary.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas noted that the Freedom Schools program is essential in helping all of society in the long run.

“The incarceration of American youngsters in the juvenile justice system has serious consequences for all of us,” he said. “The CDF Freedom Schools program is one very effective way of giving young people a chance to improve their lives.”

Click here for last year’s evaluation report.

Freedom School evaluation team and community leaders during July 3, 2014 release.

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