By LESLIE COLLINS
June 19, 2013
Grace United Community Ministries’ after-school program isn’t a babysitting service.
It’s designed to help students achieve and become more confident.
“I didn’t used to know my division until Mr. Howard helped me,” Garfield Elementary fourth grader Kimberly Garcia said. “I’m getting better. It makes me feel smart.”
Garcia has attended the after-school program since third grade; Both her parents work and they needed a safe place for Garcia and her brother to stay after school, she said. Garcia added she’s glad her parents sent her to Grace United.
“We’re learning new stuff and having fun at the same time,” Garcia said.
The free after-school program located at Grace, 801 Benton Blvd., is certified as a Supplemental Education Services (SES) provider and offers programming to grades kindergarten through sixth. What sets the after-school program apart from others is that Grace offers one-on-one tutoring, as well as small group tutoring, and creates an individualized reading plan for each student. The program focuses on improving reading comprehension and math skills and each student takes a pre-test, mid-year test and post-year test to track progress.
Judy Knorr, an educator for 30 years, created the reading program for Grace and uses a national standards chart to test each student on reading accuracy, fluency levels and comprehension. She also tutors students struggling in reading and teaches them to identify things like setting, plot development, resolution and main ideas.
“We talk about the story and they don’t really know I’m asking questions,” Knorr said. “We’re just discussing the story.”
Before working at Grace, Knorr worked for the Blue Valley School District as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and later became the curriculum coordinator for the district.
For kindergarten through second grades, students work on phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and word study. For third graders and above, the curriculum focuses even more on comprehension and students must write book reports. To keep students motivated, a number of the assignments involve a game format.
Vavor “Miss Laurie” Theus, the project director, uses scrabble game pieces to help her students improve on vocabulary. Theus will divide the group into teams and will call out a word for the teams to spell. The first team to spell the word correctly wins that round. Theus also turns counting money into a game and incorporates mini-science projects into her classroom. Recently, her group learned about the science behind baking a cake and how the ingredients interact with each other.
“I try to be really creative and make them want to have fun and want to come back,” Theus said.
Howard Spencer, vice-chair of the Grace United Community Ministries Board, tests and tutors students in math and also recruits volunteers and tutors for the after-school program. Approximately 70 students took advantage of the after-school program this year, hailing from Whittier, Garfield, Gladstone, Wheatley and J.A. Rogers elementary schools. Seventy-two percent of the students in the after-school program are Latino, which presents challenges, Spencer said.
“They’re very smart. They pick up the English language very fast, but the problem is they don’t speak it at home, and when they don’t speak it at home, they don’t learn and hear words,” Spencer said.
Their vocabulary isn’t expanding as much, he added.
“What we really strive for in reading is building their comprehension,” Spencer said. “If you can’t understand what you’re reading, you might as well not be reading.”
To further bridge the gap, Grace United tutors attend parent teacher conferences and provide Spanish translating services for parents.
“We have volunteers that drive 20 miles down here and really care,” Knorr said. “They make connections with kids.”
Once a week, Mary Bouck, a Pets for Life volunteer, visits the after-school program with her certified therapy dog, Darcy. The cocker spaniel mix and her owner are part of the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program that helps build a child’s reading confidence.
“Kids that are having difficulty learning to read often are uncomfortable reading in front of their teachers or classmates, but they really feel accepted by a dog and like to read with the dog,” Bouck said. “The idea is they’re teaching the dog to read. It’s really neat.”
Darcy and Bouck have volunteered at Grace for more than two years and meet with students one-on-one.
“Some of the kids I’ve worked with for both years, which is cool because I’ve really gotten to see a lot of improvement, more confidence and more enjoyment of reading,” Bouck said. “I just love to see kids improve and really start to enjoy reading.”
“Reading is the key to everything,” Knorr said. “Even the math that we’re doing – if they can’t read the word problems or they can’t read the directions or they don’t follow in sequence, they’ll make mistakes and won’t be successful in anything they do in school… If they’re more than a year behind (in reading level), that’s pretty hard to be given standard homework at grade level.”
A majority of the after-school students are behind in grade level reading and the goal is to help students move up in reading levels and eventually hit their target of reading on grade level. Students in the program usually move up anywhere from .5 to two years in reading levels, Knorr said.
“Principals say, ‘We’re glad you have your program because our kids that are going there are more disciplined; they’re better readers,'” Spencer said.
Wheatley Elementary fourth grader Cecilia Gonzalez said she enjoys attending the after-school program and her go to books include spine-chilling books, like the “Goosebumps” series, or funny books, like “It’s Fine to be Nine,” which details the lives of different nine-year-olds.
She’s learned more than reading comprehension, too.
“I’ve learned how to be friendly, be nice and how to respect people,” she said.
“The kids, I love them,” Theus said. “I love to hear from them, ‘Oh, this is so fun.’ It has it’s challenges and some days you’ll be like that kid drove me crazy, but you still love it. The kids – that’s what keeps me coming back.”