China Grove church program supports love of learning

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 6, 2016

By Susan Shinn for The Salisbury Post

CHINA GROVE — Ten years ago, the congregation of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Downtown China Grove wanted to help improve test scores at China Grove Elementary School.

So they opened St. Mark’s Academy, bringing in paid tutors two afternoons a week.

Over the past decade, the program has served 685 children in the South Rowan area. The academy has evolved into a program that assists students in kindergarten through third grade with reading skills, serving all six of the elementary schools in southern Rowan County.

The children are assessed at the beginning and end of the year, and typically show anywhere from one month’s to one year’s growth in their reading levels, says Elizabeth Staton, who directs the academy.

“We decided to go from fixing a problem to being more proactive,” Staton says of the academy’s shift in focus to reading skills.

At first, the program only worked with students in third- and fifth-grade on reading and math skills. At the suggestion of its teachers, the program now reaches out to children at a younger age to improve reading skills.

“We want to help children before they really start struggling with reading,” Staton says. “Last year, we added kindergarten, and we now have a waiting list. Our third-grade classes are also full.”

Certified teachers work with students in small-group settings, with four to six children. Teachers on each grade level rotate in 20-minute or 30-minute segments during the hour-long tutoring sessions on Tuesday and Thursdays.

Parents are responsible for getting their children to and from the church. This year, 69 children are on the roll.

“We’ve had the most registered and most coming consistently that we’ve had in the past few years,” Staton notes.

There are two kindergarten classes, four first-grade classes, three second-grade classes and three third-grade classes. A dozen current or retired teachers serve as tutors, and Staton says next year may see a shift in responsibilities to serve more kindergarten students.

Church volunteers greet the children when they arrive each afternoon, and have snacks ready. The kids then enjoy for a few minutes of down time in the fellowship hall before tutoring starts at 4 p.m. Parents can either stay in the fellowship hall for the next hour, or run errands and return to pick up their children.

Don Heglar and Pastor Phil Thorsen open the front doors of the education building as children arrive. Heglar’s wife, Frances, works in the kitchen, along with Shirley Morton and Ann Fryar. This afternoon, the women have cut orange segments, poured lemonade and filled small bowls with animal crackers. The children are unfailingly polite as they pick up their snacks.

Marilyn Upright supervises the tutors and does all the scheduling for the 12 teachers and 10 substitutes. Throughout the afternoon, she checks in on classes. The teachers write simple lesson plans for Upright.

“They can teach reading any way they want to,” she says.

As tutoring gets started, children move by grade-level groups to Sunday School rooms on the first and second floors.

April Williamson works with her first-graders about how vowels on the end of words change the words when they’re dropped. Bite becomes bit. Slide becomes slid. Across the hall, Karen Childers and her first-graders are discussing words with “ar” or “or” sounds.

Downstairs, kindergarten tutor Anna Hinshaw and her five students are working with words in the “at” family: cat, hat, bat, mat, rat.

Pam Austin, the Title I teacher at China Grove Elementary, conducts assessments and serves as a substitute tutor when needed.

“I normally tutor after school,” Austin says. “I had talked with Libby about the program, and I just decided I wanted to help. This is a great service for our school to have. Parents look for it and ask about it way in advance.”

Other teachers include Mandy Dawkins, Yvonne Iddings, Amber Rouse, Nancy Shafer, Megan Wyatt, Becky Staton, Joan Godwin, Angela Anthony and Katie Winchell. Other St. Mark’s volunteers are Colleen Weant and Caroline Marshall.

“The teachers are happy to talk with parents about students’ progress and problem areas,” Upright says. “We’ve seen progress every year. The children really take off.”

Melissa Salyers’ three children have all been part of St. Mark’s Academy. Salyers and her husband Jeffrey moved here almost four years ago from Florida.

“The schools there were huge,” she says. “When we moved here, the teacher sat me down and said my daughter was not reading at the third-grade level. We didn’t qualify for free tutoring through school, so we got into this program. I was helping at home and they were helping here. Not only did she get to grade level, she tested for the gifted class.”

Her daughter Faith is now a sixth-grader at Corriher-Lipe Middle School. Jeffrey Jr. is a third-grader at Landis Elementary.

“In the second grade,” his mom says, “he was struggling. This year, he’s already at the maximum reading level for third grade, and it’s not even the end of the year.”

Her son Matthew, a kindergartener, is also in the academy.

“He’s so excited,” Salyer says. “I have such high praise for the tutors. They know exactly what to do. Each kid is successful, and they actually love to read.”

“These parents are very conscientious,” Upright says. Schools refer children for tutoring, and siblings often frequently attend the program.

“It’s such a good program,” Upright continues. “It’s a mission for this church, and it’s a mission for these teachers.”

“Our principals are very supportive and helpful,” says Staton, who shares student assessment results with each school. “I’m proud of the church of seeing the need and opening the doors to our community.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury. 


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