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Diocese of Atlanta Summer Programs Increase Literacy

Aug 7, 2023

Literacy School

Appleton Episcopal Ministries Free to Read® students work with reading specialist Anay Williamson.

The Diocese of Atlanta supports programs that help children with few resources become good readers.

At Atlanta’s Emmaus House this summer 65 children participated in the 8th annual Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program. The goal of the six-week enrichment program is to develop literate, empowered children in Atlanta’s Peoplestown community.

In Macon, the Free to Read® summer enrichment program operated by Appleton Episcopal Ministries served 30 children from the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Both programs have been proven to reverse summer vacation reading loss.

The Rev. Kenya Thompson at Emmaus House said Freedom School has also been shown to close the reading achievement gap of “scholars” who experience poverty and lack access to educational resources.

“The Emmaus program for students from first through the eighth grade motivates young scholars to read, build positive attitudes towards learning, and empowers them to make a difference in themselves, their families, their communities, and their world,” said Thompson who is Emmaus House director of leadership development and education.

It also helps keep the children from falling behind in school.

“During an average summer, students may lose up to two months’ worth of learning,” Thompson said. “This is known as the ‘summer slide’ that accounts for more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.”

At Macon’s Free To Read® summer program, Appleton Episcopal Ministries Missioner Julie Groce also said statistics from six years of the program have proven its effectiveness.

“Since 2020, our program continues to prevent summer slide and we are able to address the significant learning deficits experienced by our children during school closures,” Groce said.

Statistics from throughout Georgia show the need for such programs.

Sixty-eight percent of all fourth graders in Georgia are not proficient in reading, according to a 2023 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The sobering reality is that educators know children who can’t read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.

And students who do not complete high school are significantly more likely to be incarcerated, become teen parents, be snared in violence as an aggressor or a victim, be unemployed, or need help from Medicaid and other welfare programs.

The good news is that programs like those at Emmaus House and in Macon reduce or eliminate achievement gaps. Plus, the effects of this summer program last over time.

To keep track of results Emmaus House evaluates its scholars using procedures recommended by the CDF Freedom Schools® program. Since the inception of the program at Emmaus House in 2015, results show that its scholars make significant gains.

“In 2022, 99% of our scholars maintained their current reading level and 30% increased their reading level by at least one grade as measured by pre- and post-program standardized testing,” Thompson said.

In a video about the program, Thompson said Freedom School is also about instilling confidence, and self-esteem.

“We’re all very aware that in the world in which we live there are a lot of challenges that our young people are facing today that are different from what we did five, 10 or 20 years ago,” Thompson said. “So, we want to instill confidence and faith that despite everything that’s going on in their lives they can get the desires of their hearts, that they can excel and be a productive part of their community.”

Instilling confidence, inspiration, and self-esteem are goals of all Emmaus House programs.

A popular feature of Freedom School is the Read Aloud program. Adults from diverse backgrounds such as Leadership Atlanta alums, school administrators, priests of the Diocese including Bishop Rob Wright, and for this year a surgeon, an engineer who had been a Freedom School leader intern and a parent of Freedom School students read to and interact with students.

“All of the adults really engaged with the kids and responded very honestly to the kids wonderful questions,” Thompson said.

One of the ways Emmaus House supports the community is by encouraging young people to find their voice and to speak about issues that affect them.

Emmaus House scholars took part in a national day of social action called “Health, Hope, and Healing.”

They joined Freedom School students from 174 programs in 88 cities around the country to fulfill a core element of Freedom School.

This year’s focus was the impact of gun violence and how it diminishes students’ sense of safety and opportunity. Students learned about a Children’s Defense Fund report that found 4,739 children and teens died from gun violence in 2021 and that Black children and teens are six times as likely to die from gun violence as their white peers.

Freedom School scholars took that message to the streets of Peoplestown, holding hand-made banners and signs then gathered for a program on how to reduce gun violence in their lives and communities.

Freedom School Marches

Emmaus House Freedom School scholars march for gun violence prevention.

“We’re so proud of them for taking a stand on behalf of youth everywhere,” Thompson said. “Too many of our children have witnessed firsthand the tragic and needless loss of life that results from gun violence.”

The Freedom Schools Model

CDF Freedom Schools®, were established in 1995 by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of Washington D.C.-based Children’s Defense Fund. Edleman, who has since retired, said she was inspired to start the program by the “Mississippi Freedom Summer Project,” begun in 1964 by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Council of Federated Organizations.

The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, who succeeded Edelman as the Children’s Defense Fund CEO in 2020, said Emmaus House’s Freedom School is an example of meaningful community collaboration and impact.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to see the work of Emmaus House up close,” Wilson said during a visit to Emmaus House where he met with volunteers, parents, and caregivers of Freedom School scholars.

“It is clear that this is a place where children are loved, nurtured, and challenged to grow. This is a place where families are respected, supported, and empowered to thrive. This is a place where the church and the community are working together to create a more just and equitable society for all God’s children. This is a place where CDF’s vision and mission are alive and well,” Wilson said.

But for all of the serious work, the Emmaus House Freedom School also provides scholars with time to relax and unwind. This year more than 40 Freedom School students spent the last week of July at The Diocese of Atlanta’s Camp Mikell in Toccoa for five days of carefree play.

Emmaus House Director Greg Cole said Freedom School is a key part of the nonprofit’s overall support of those living with material poverty in the Peoplestown Community.

“We believe children need enrichment opportunities beyond the classroom to equip them socially, emotionally, and intellectually to compete in today’s marketplace. That’s why Emmaus House will continue to offer programs like our summer Freedom Schools program and Youth on the Move, our out-of-school-time program for middle and high school students.” Cole wrote in a July article.

Macon’s Free to Read Experience

The Macon CDF Freedom Schools® program opened in the summer of 2017.

After three years of delivering CDF programming, Appleton successfully pivoted in 2020 due to disruption by the pandemic by reimagining its program as Free to Read®, said Appleton Missioner Groce.

Scholars still met with their teachers face-to-face – but at a six-foot distance – when teachers delivered learning packets and nutritious meals to each child’s home every week for nine weeks. Teachers followed up with one-to-one online contact and students could respond by text or email with photos of their completed activities.

Although financial challenges resulting from the pandemic forced Macon to drop its affiliation with CDF Freedom Schools®, the current curriculum and model remain faithful to CDF’s vision, Groce said.

Free To Read® returned to in-person learning in 2022. Today, parents and supporters keep up with the children’s activities in the program’s newsletter The Scoop.

The program has also added a school-year mentoring and tutoring option through another innovation of the Diocese of Atlanta , Path To Shine®, a mentoring and tutoring program for elementary school children with 16 locations in Middle and North Georgia.

During this year’s six–week program 30 rising 1st – 3rd graders in Macon made new friends, improved their reading skills, and had new experiences, Groce said.

They read books that promote self-esteem, respect for peers, managing their emotions, and exploring cultures from around the world.

They also learned about musicians, artists, and civil rights figures.

Afternoon enrichments included art, dance, photography, gardening, cooking, trips to the public library, a splash pad, and a local peach orchard. The children explored the science of how they see with models of eyes, 3-D images, and a room-sized camera obscura and had their eyesight assessed by a local optometrist.

Freedom School Art

Macon Free to Read scholars Jordan and Hayden create pottery art.

Free to Read scholars and teachers outside of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Macon.

Cast members of The Nutcracker danced and showed everyone their beautiful costumes.

Inspired by the book A Good Night for Mr. Coleman, the children also gave to the community. They decorated and filled gift bags with snacks, clean socks, and fresh toothbrushes for people at Daybreak, a respite site for people who are “home insecure,” Groce said.

The Free to Read program is led by five teachers, all students and graduates from Mercer University, Wesleyan College, Valdosta State University, Berry College, and the University of North Georgia. The staff also includes three program assistants and 42 volunteers.

This summer, Free to Read added a curriculum director to create lesson plans, a counselor-chaplain from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology who helped address student anxiety and trauma, and a reading specialist who used the Orton Gillingham phonics techniques to evaluate the reading levels of all students and offer one-on-one assistance to help children raise their reading levels.

“Every child received their own copy of all 25 books we read to take home and add to their personal libraries,” Groce said. “In addition, the children had a safe and loving space to spend a large part of their summer vacations without charge to their families;  All made possible by an abundance of financial and in-kind gifts donated to Appleton.”

For more information about the CDF Freedom Schools® program at Emmaus House in Atlanta, contact The Rev. Kenya Thompson at

For information about the Free To Read® Summer program in Macon, contact Appleton Missioner Julie Groce at

Click here for  information about other programs of the Diocese that address the needs of children.

Don Plummer is the beat reporter for The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. If you have story ideas, please reach out to Don.

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