2/17/19 Church addresses inequity at Burlington school

Saving Newlin
Augustine reading tutor Lee Kern, right, holds a tile with th printed on it for Newlin Elementary second grader Kori Dowell to sound out in the school’s media center on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019.

Woody Marshall / Times-News

Augustine reading tutor Lee Kern, right, holds a tile with th printed on it for Newlin Elementary second grader Kori Dowell to sound out in the school’s media center on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019.

Church addresses inequity at Burlington school
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 2/17/19     
Reprinted with permission.  

Newlin Elementary School has a guardian angel.

Since 2012, the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter has poured its time and resources into the school — tutoring students, feeding them, mentoring them and providing life experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have.

The robust partnership was the brainchild of Betsey Savage.

“I had this vision that somehow something could happen in that school,” Savage said. “There had been a series of principals every year, every two years. It had just been an atrocious time in terms of stability within the school. The stars just aligned in that I went to the director of our parish at that time and talked to him about how this really felt like a way for our parish to really become more neighborly, to act like neighbors with the school being just a mile or so away, and he thought that was an important thing for us to investigate.”

Around the same time, Principal Larry Conte took over.

He was energetic, dedicated and ready to put his heart and soul into the job.

He also wasn’t afraid to be realistic about their needs, and it was in talking to him that Savage realized just how much help the elementary school needed.

NEARLY 100 PERCENT of the students at Newlin qualify for free or reduced lunch.

That means a large portion of the student body is affected by the achievement gap — the difference in academic performance between students who come from low-income families and those who are better off.

Students from low-income families are more likely to have parents who work two or three jobs, more likely to stay up later and spend more time watching TV or a playing on a tablet, more likely to have stress at home, more likely to have poor health and/ or nutrition and less likely to have educational materials in the home.

This affects their education.

Often, these students are behind the pack before they even step foot in a kindergarten classroom, and teachers are left trying to catch them up before End-of-Grade tests (EOGs).

This is a nearly impossible task made all the worse when the school is then branded as “failing” by the state.

Established by the N.C. General Assembly in 2013, school performance grades give all public schools an A-through-F rating based 80 percent on test scores and 20 percent on whether they did not meet, met, or exceeded expected growth for that year.

Newlin received a D in 2018, an F in 2017 and a D in 2016.

The stigma of being an ‘F’ school is as demoralizing as the ‘A’ in The Scarlet Letter. And dealing with that stigma year after year can cause good teachers to leave, as Newlin Partnership board member Ann Wooten saw recently.

“I heard one teacher say to me, ‘It’s getting so hard. I love these children, I love this school, but the stigma we get from the community from having that F or that D, it’s getting hard’ and she was one of those who left and she was a very good teacher. So I think it’s an accumulation over the years,” Wooten said.

It isn’t only teachers that are leaving.

Former Newlin Partnership Chair Kathy Hykes reports, each year, Newlin’s student population shifts by around 200 students.

Families are constantly moving in and out of the attendance zone due to housing troubles, and Savage added that she’s seen this put strain on the classroom environment.

“It impacts the environment that teachers work so hard to develop within that classroom, not that you don’t want to welcome the children, that’s not the point. It’s the numbers of children that are coming and changing. … It’s overwhelming to even think about that experience a teacher would have, and multiple times throughout the year,” she said.

Instead of receiving support from the community, these students and teachers are often written off, and Holy Comforter felt it had a responsibility to help them.

“It’s a huge problem, and we should be embracing this school instead of treating it like there’s some kind of troglodytes there,” Hykes said.

ONE OF THE Newlin Partnership’s many branches is teacher appreciation.

At least three times a year, volunteers do something to show teachers that their work is important and the community is behind them. Hykes cited the annual backto-school luncheon as one particularly exciting and energizing event.

And when teachers need emergency supplies, Holy Comforter acts as the “deep pocket” for the school — a role that Parent-Teacher Organizations play at some other schools.

Newlin hasn’t been able to build a solid group of parents that have the time or funding to help out. Long and late work hours, transportation and language barriers often keep them from participating.

Hykes has found that when events are held in the morning rather than after school, they see much higher parent engagement. But the majority of the partnership’s work is with the students — namely teaching students how to read.

Holy Comforter established a Burlington chapter of the Augustine Literacy Project (ALP) — now their most impactful and successful program — in 2012.

Tutors attend rigorous 10-day training before being matched with a second or third grade student and meeting with them twice a week.

The project serves 15 students each year.

While there’s a far greater need, Savage — the Augustine Literacy Project director — says space limitations have kept them from expanding, and all tutors work with one student and one student only.

“The fact that it’s one-on-one means that we can tailor our work for that child in this sacred time away from the classroom where they’re not being measured against someone else,” she said. “And I think children feel that sense that we’re committed and we’re going to follow the child. They teach us how they best learn and that’s what we bring to them with the planned lessons that we do every week.”

Last year, eight of their children were able to grow at least two grade levels in reading. Two grew six levels.

Those who didn’t show improvement on standardized tests showed improvement in the classroom.

“We got feedback from teachers that, even though it didn’t show up in standardized testing, that the child’s confidence level in the classroom, willingness to participate in class [had improved],” Savage said. “This was a child that had started out at the beginning of the year shouting, ‘I can’t read!’ in the second grade. They had a tutor, and by the end of the year … he looked at her and said, ‘I can read now.’”

When parents get involved, reading with their child each night and helping with homework, students tend to improve even more dramatically.

Though the Newlin Partnership hasn’t been able to focus on the parent piece as much as other programs (Elon’s “It Takes a Village” or “Celebrate Reading”), they encourage parents to make whatever small changes they can to boost their child’s reading ability.

“Most parents want to know how to help their children, but they don’t know how and they don’t have the resources,” Wooten said.

Hykes praised former Alamance County Public Libraries Director MJ Wilkerson for the idea to tie students’ ID numbers to the library system, giving all ABSS students access to free library books without their parents having to sign up for a library card.

ACPL also offer ZOOM passes, which are free tickets to places like the North Carolina Zoo, the Durham Museum of Life and Science, the North Park Pool and Snow Camp Outdoor Theater.

Enriching life experiences are as important as daily reading, and that’s where the Newlin Partnership’s “Camp Newlin” comes in.

FOR ONE WEEK each summer, Newlin Partnership Chair Molly Exem leads a summer camp for 15 rising third graders.

They swim, they hike, they visit museums and universities — they experience the world around them in a way they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Hykes said a teacher approached them, recently, asking if they could fund a one-night trip to the beach for her students who had never seen the ocean before. Wooten has worked with a child who had never seen an escalator and never been to a park.

These experiences require time, transportation and funding. Many families simply don’t have the means to take their children to places like Myrtle Beach.

In addition to the trips, Camp Newlin provides food for each camper. Students who receive free or reduced lunch during the school year often face food insecurity during the summer months when school is out.

During the year, the Newlin Partnership funds 50 backpacks filled with food and snacks for children to take home each weekend. While they can’t continue that through the summer, providing food at Camp Newlin is a way to address food insecurity on a small scale.

Principal Larry Conte has said they could fund 300 backpacks and it still wouldn’t be enough to meet the needs of Newlin families, but the school is — of course — appreciative, and Exem says they’ve received nothing but joy and love in return.

OVERALL, Holy Comforter has 10 different volunteer opportunities addressing Newlin’s various needs.

But Newlin isn’t the only Alamance-Burlington school that has these needs, and the women of the Newlin Partnership hope their efforts will inspire other congregations to do what they can to support local students.

“If another church wanted to start their own chapter of Augustine, that’s what we would ultimately like to see,” Hykes said. “If they wanted a chapter in their church for Hillcrest, for instance, or anywhere because there’s a need for it in every school in the county, then we would encourage them to do that and help them see what they could do to get started doing something like that.”

Registration is open now for the fall ALP training program. Those interested should contact Savage at augpro.bur@gmail.com.

If tutoring seems overwhelming, Exem suggests joining the partnership’s “Lucky Listeners” program and reading with a student for one hour, once a week.

Hykes, who’s a Lucky Listener volunteer herself, added that she gets just as much out of it as her student does.

“It’s so rewarding. And for anybody — if their grandchildren are elsewhere and they would love to have contact with a child, this is absolutely ideal, or if they have some time during the day because their work is at different hours. It takes one hour, maybe 15 minutes to get there and 15 minutes to get back home. It’s so life-giving both to you and to the child and for us to act like we’re great because we’re doing this, it’s not like that. I go to get my high every Friday morning.”

Even if they can’t inspire others to volunteer, Hykes, Savage, Wooten and Exem want to raise awareness about inequity, and the level of need some schools face over others.

“We’re hoping that, one step at a time, we can build some awareness in our citizens of what the needs are of our community that we don’t know about,” Wooten said.

The Newlin Partnership has impacted Newlin in a way they never expected, and it’s shown that change is possible if the community rallies behind its most vulnerable schools and students.

“If it feels hopeless you’re not going to want to contribute. That’s just throwing good money after bad, or saying, ‘My time could be better spent on something else,’” Hykes said. “But we know that we can balance the scales. We just need the people engaged in doing it.”

Find out more about how you can get involved by visiting https://holycomforterburlington.org/ and clicking “Community Outreach” under the ministries tab, or by contacting Molly Exem at 336-214-2419 or mollyexem@gmail.com.