In the past 20 years, Mary Nell McPherson has built Charlotte’s Freedom School Partners into a local institution with a national reputation.
As McPherson prepares to retire from the summer reading program, she spoke about the difference between boosting test scores and building a community of readers.
McPherson has always liked tackling Charlotte’s biggest challenges. She had already worked for Crisis Assistance Ministry and Habitat for Humanity when she decided 20 years ago that she wanted to try something new.
"I knew that even with decent housing and basic needs met, what really changed lives was education," McPherson said.
Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church hired McPherson to run a summer and after-school reading program for children in the Piedmont Courts housing project and the Belmont neighborhood. Soon Seigle Avenue Partners connected with the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom School program, and Freedom School Partners was born.
Freedom Schools emerged from the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. They’re designed to build self-confidence and empowerment along with reading skills. For children who might otherwise sit home all summer, it’s a six-week camp where they’re introduced to multicultural books about children of color who confront real-life challenges. In Charlotte the cost is $40 per family, no matter how many children they send.
The counselors are college students – many of whom were once campers themselves.
"They inspire little people to grow up to be all kinds of things," McPherson said, "and that’s the unique secret sauce of Freedom School."
There are other ingredients. One is Harambee, a daily opening ceremony marked by inspirational chants and songs. The word is a Swahili term that means “all pull together.”
Another is visiting readers. Hundreds of adults in Charlotte, including elected officials, executives and school superintendents, have read to the kids. When McPherson looks back over 20 years, one reader stands out: Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas.
He’s usually seen in a suit and tie working with the area’s rich and powerful. McPherson says some executives are uncomfortable reading to children.
"But Michael was all about it, so he read the book and then he was twirling on the floor and break-dancing, and of course the children loved it," she recalls.
Of course, Freedom School Partners is far from the only group working to develop reading skills. Every year swarms of volunteers and millions of public and private dollars are pumped into schools and community groups trying to help disadvantaged kids read better.
North Carolina’s Read To Achieve program has made headlines for years – partly for its ambition to get all students reading on grade level by third grade and partly for its failure to make that happen.
The test scores just aren’t budging. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and in North Carolina, fewer than half of all black, Hispanic and low-income third-graders earned even a basic grade-level score on their state reading exams last year.
A few years ago Project LIFT, a public-private partnership focused on a handful of high-poverty Charlotte schools, severed its ties to Freedom School Partners because the program didn’t show enough gains on student testing.
McPherson says she’s skeptical about testing in general, but even more so about reading programs that are overly focused on basic skills. On the wall of her office in Dilworth, she keeps a worksheet from when she tutored a first-grader in a data-driven reading program a few years ago.
She reads the required sentences in a monotone: "Many things are good to do. Eating vegetables is good to do. Vegetables help you stay well."
"Why would anybody want to read this?" she asks in exasperation.
Freedom Schools’ approach is different, she says: "It’s about stories and it’s about books. And children fall in love with reading because of the stories that they’re engaged in in Freedom Schools."
McPherson agrees that grade-level reading is essential. But she says it’s going to take programs like hers that help children love reading – and support for the basic needs of families and children that is lacking now.
Even without the test scores to prove its merits, Freedom School Partners has grown to 18 sites, including houses of worship, public and private schools and UNC Charlotte. Freedom Schools has programs in 28 states and 87 cities, and national director Philippa Smithey says Charlotte’s is the largest.
"It reflects a high level of engagement on the part of people from diverse neighborhoods," Smithey says. "And you go to Charlotte to see how the program’s operating and you can’t help but feel that something really special has happened there."
Smithey says what makes Charlotte special is the way so many groups have taken ownership in Freedom Schools. She credits McPherson's warmth, compassion and hard work for that.
"She's a tiny person physically," Smithey says, "but her leadership skills and that inner quality she has makes her a giant."
McPherson is only 62, but she said the 20-year mark felt like a good time to retire. Freedom School Partners is searching for a new director, and she says she's confident the program will remain strong.
McPherson's husband has already retired, their parents are aging, and they have a farm in Virginia where she plans to spend time gardening. It's located in a school district with only six schools, and McPherson says she'll soon be working with them to help kids learn to love reading.