UNIVERSITY AREA – Mort Elementary School Principal William Woodlawn Johnson III is all too familiar with the negative news that permeates newspapers and saturates television screens.
So he’s happy to “shout to the rafters” about a positive partnership at Mort that is primarily aimed at helping struggling young students attain academic success.
Five days a week, since shortly after the school year began, a team of volunteers from Van Dyke Church in Lutz has converged on the school’s east Bearss Avenue campus to assist in areas they’re needed – the office, the media center and several of the classrooms.
In total, close to 150 men, women and even a married couple have signed on to help out in ways their skills and interests can best be used.
Most opt to tutor pre-evaluated kindergartners who need assistance in learning their numbers and letters of the alphabet – the basic skills most youngsters are expected to know when they reach school age.
Pre-trained volunteers are sent in pairs to all 12 of the school’s kindergarten classes where, for two hours, they each work one-on-one with five separate students.
“It is phenomenal. It’s even more than we dreamed it would be,” said Johnson, who noted that 98 percent of the school’s 852 students come from families whose incomes qualify their children for the school district’s reduced lunch fee program.
“There is nothing greater than giving these kids hope for the future,” he added.
Mort PTSA President Barbara Dick – who has devoted 25 years of quality time to helping the school – noted it was also gratifying to have numerous Van Dyke Church volunteers on hand to help prepare, serve and clean up after Mort’s first-ever spaghetti dinner on Sept. 17, held in conjunction with the school’s open house.
“The more the parents come the more they can get involved in their children’s school,” she said. “Research has shown the more parents get involved the better the chances their children will succeed.”
Matthew Hartfield, senior pastor of the Van Dyke Church, said his congregation’s willingness to help out at Mort indicates the church’s focus on the community.
“That is particularly the case for at-risk kids in schools and in our neighborhoods,” he said. “We want to be able to identify and target those pockets with the greatest need.”
Van Dyke Church member Zenia Robertson helped recruit volunteers and organize Mort’s kindergarten tutoring program knowing in advance that many of the students entering the school were not on grade level.
“It’s very exciting and hopefully we’ll affect these kids the rest of their lives,” said Robertson. According to Robertson, statistics show that children not reading by the third grade will forever have difficulty in that area.
“More than anything else our volunteers focus on creating a strong learning environment,” she said. “Hopefully we can establish a model for other schools.”
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at JoyceCMcKenzie@gmail.com.