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It takes a village… and a church

By Susan Shinn

Salisbury Post

CHINA GROVE — The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” is indeed true.

The village of China Grove includes a church.

In November, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Main Street started a tutoring program for third- and fifth-graders at China Grove Elementary School.

Some 60 students were identified by the school as being at-risk for the “gateway” years of end-of-grade testing.

“We felt like these are the kids who need extra help right now,” says Terry Whitesell, the school’s principal. “I think we’d ultimately like to have 80 kids over there.”

So far, the program has received an “A” from students, faculty and parents.

The program was the brainchild of Elizabeth Staton, a parent volunteer and the church’s former youth director.

The church’s endowment committee wanted to embark on an outreach project, and Staton approached Whitesell about an after-school tutoring program.

“To me, it was logical because of the location of the church and the location of the school,” Staton says.

The 18 teachers and assistants are hired through the school and paid by the church, but the program is free for students.

The church modeled the program based on school administrators’ wish list: free time with healthy snacks and small-group tutoring.

Church volunteers prepare afterschool snacks while children ride the bus from the school to the church.

Staton and the Rev. Gregory Yeager, the church’s pastor, spend time with the children while they eat, and lead them in playing games and singing songs.

“It’s not a proselytizing effort,” Yeager says, “but it is definitely an outreach to let them know exactly who we are.

“Jesus said, ‘So far as you do this to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me,’ and we take that very, very seriously.

“Kids missing out on education are the least in our community.”

The teachers arrive about 45 minutes later from China Grove Elementary, and tutoring takes place for an hour.

Parents are responsible for picking up their children at church.

“The teachers can concentrate solely on instruction for that hour,” Whitesell says. “The kids are saying it’s like a field trip two days a week.”

Tutoring has taken place at school, but Whitesell admits, “it’s a hassle to get a snack and prepare.”

The change of locale seems to work well for students and teachers.

“It’s a different environment and comfort zone for the kids,” says Kelly Street, an assistant principal. “It energizes them, and that enthusiasm is there.”

“Everybody thinks it’s just a great thing for the school,” Whitesell says. “It’s saving the school $15,000 to $20,000.”

That money has gone to hire four additional tutors who come to school to help children during the regular school day.

“It’s all about getting kids the help they need,” Whitesell says of these efforts. “Every child deserves a chance to learn. It’s a community pulling together to help kids.”

St. Mark’s endowment fund, through the estate of Harold Lentz, provided the seed money for the program. In December, the church received a $24,000 grant from the synod’s Michael Peeler Fund, which will help pay for the program well into 2007, according to Yeager.

Previously empty classrooms in the church’s educational building are now filled with students and teachers two afternoons a week.

“We are slowly helping with supplies,” Staton says, noting that the chalk boards will eventually be replaced with white boards.

Teachers are working with students they don’t normally see during the school day.

First-grade teacher Karen Childers, for example, works with a group of fifth-graders.

“It’s helped teachers work with kids who need to be challenged in their own classrooms,” Street says.

The teachers agree.

“I used to tutor students on my own,” says Jennifer Roberson, first-grade teacher, “but a lot of parents can’t pay $25 or $30 an hour.

“This is an easy way to get back into it.”

Roberson and two other tutors work with a group of nine third-graders.

“We split them into three groups of three, so we never have more than three students at a time,” she says.

The students have 20-minute lessons with each instructor.

The students are concentrating on addition and subtraction facts, test-taking skills and following directions.

“We keep it fun and interesting and motivating so it’s not all paper-and-pencil work, because they’ve done that at school all day,” Roberson notes. “Time flies when you split it up that way.”

During the last tutoring session before the holidays, Christine Barringer’s students made Christmas cards from different geometric shapes.

Mark Kuss’ class was busy playing multiplication baseball, circling the “bases” around the table as they solved the problems.

Roberson adds, “We just appreciate the church doing this. I know the students are going to benefit. Hopefully, those test scores will prove how hard they worked at the end of the year.”

Jane Fallis is the school’s literacy coach. She was hired after the school — along with the system — came under “corrective action” for failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress.

She helps the tutors develop their lesson plans. Students are working on improving math and reading skills through hands-on activities, comprehension, frequency and vocabulary.

And they’re boosting their confidence.

“The secret to all of this is consistency,” Fallis says. “Consistency is the name of the game. We’re trying to give the children all the help we possibly can. I am just thrilled with the program. We are very lucky.”

Childers, the first-grade teacher, attends St. Mark’s.

“I’ve done tutoring before and the faculty thought this was a good outreach program,” she says. “The children are excited about coming. For me, it’s been a challenge, too. It’s a nice diversion from what you do at school and it’s a totally different environment.”

Fifth-graders Jesse Pope and Jimmy Lee play chess before the tutoring begins.

“It’s fun,” Jesse says of the tutoring program. “I can understand stuff better.”

“We get to do really fun stuff,” says fifth-grader Ariel Alexander. “We get really fun teachers and they teach in a really fun way.”

“I like the teachers that I have,” says fifth-grader Dedra Howard.

“It’s cool,” says fifth-grader Briana Hampton. “We get to have so much fun before the tutoring starts.”

“I love it very much,” says third-grader Carly Morgan, “because every time we get to come here, we get a snack and we get to play games. We’re doing multiplication at school and I’m understanding a lot of multiplication now.”

“I really thought it was a great idea,” says Lisa Daniel, whose daughter, third-grader Madelyn, is in the program. “I’m hoping she can realize that other people have problems and it’s OK to try harder.”

Devonia Mason, parent of third-grader Mariah, says that her daughter has already brought up her math grade.

“I think it’s gonna make a difference for the kids and for our church,” Staton says.

Yeager adds, “We don’t expect overnight results. We expect to be in this for the long haul.”

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Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or sshinn@salisburypost.com.

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