For Bartow County schoolchildren, a program requiring little but giving a lot

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CARTERSVILLE — When, once again, his fingerprints didn’t show up on the scanner, Tommy Harris wondered aloud how that could be when his wife’s showed up fine.

“That’s because she works with her hands more,” replied the officer.

Harris, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Kingston and a former assistant principal, thought about that principle. He and his wife, Patsy, were among several volunteers taking part in the Bartow Baptist Association’s Read to Grow program. The initiative, where one helps first graders in their reading comprehension, required a background check with fingerprinting. Additional training took place prior to the school year through the Bartow County Board of Education.

Tommy Harris, a former educator and now pastor, shares with The Index some of the benefits of helping children at Kingston Elementary School develop their reading skills. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

Since then, around a dozen members of Macedonia have traveled to nearby Kingston Elementary throughout the week. They sit with first graders and help with sight words and other reading comprehension skills. Volunteers will read to the children but mostly be read to. Flash cards and other teaching tools assist in the process.

Read to Grow’s purpose actually points to the standardized test each of these children will take in third grade. That assessment is considered a benchmark as to a child’s probable literacy level as a young adult and the likelihood he or she will finish school and even spend time in prison.

The connection from third grade to jail

The third grade benchmark is one oft-cited when it comes to education. A study by the City University of New York revealed that third graders not at their proficient level are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma. For the ones who haven’t even mastered basic reading skills by third grade, that figure jumps to six times more likely. A 2009 study by Northeastern University showed that not having a high school diploma can make one 63 times more likely to spend time in a correctional institution when compared to those receiving a four-year degree.

Poverty compounds the problem. Overall, 22 percent of children from a lower economic background don’t graduate from high school compared to six percent who have never been poor. And even among poor children who do reach the proficiency goal, 11 percent will still not graduate compared to third graders who don’t reach the proficiency goal but have never been poor. In addition, the study said 31 percent of poor African American students who didn’t reach third grade reading proficiency failed to graduate. That figure rose to 33 percent for Hispanic students.

However, the study indicated, racial and ethnic graduation gaps disappeared when students not living in poverty reached their third grade reading goals.

Fingerprints on the community

Like any preacher worth his salt, Harris thought about that concept of the fingerprints until an analogy developed.

“The more you work with your hands, the more your fingerprints can be noticed. They become more clear. If we serve the Lord they way we ought to, our fingerprints on the community become more noticeable,” he pointed out.

Harris, 73, has a clearer perspective of the need than most. He’s been a minister for 30 years but was also a 26-year veteran in public education. As an assistant principal and assistant coach (baseball, football, basketball) at Cass High, he was also the school’s first athletic director. He finished his education career at Bartow County/Cartersville Crossroads Academy, an alternative school, before serving as headmaster for seven years at Excel Christian Academy in Cartersville.

“When I first heard about Read to Grow as a pastor I wanted to get involved,” he said. “It’s a way to take the church outside of the four walls.”

In presenting Read to Grow to prospective volunteers prior to its launch, community profiles helped show the need for the program.

“In that profile a statement was made that I know set deeply with David [Franklin, Bartow Baptist Association missionary],” remembered Harris. “It was how the third grade reading level determines the future of the child. Bartow County’s reading skills on the third grade level were very low, so we do our work with these first graders in anticipation of those third grade tests.”

Powerful community support

Bartow Baptist Association has adopted 20 classrooms in four elementary schools of the Bartow County School System, Franklin told The Index. Around 140 volunteers, mainly senior adults, are providing the boots on the ground.

David Franklin

“Teachers are some of the most stressed-out people in our county and deal with much more than people realize,” Franklin said. “With the volunteers, those teachers get to teach more while students needing extra help get it.”

In 2017 Cloverleaf Elementary School’s 32.4 percent reading proficiency reflected a ten percent jump from 2016, but still lagged behind the state average of 36.4. Principal Evie Barton, a 28-year educator, cites Read to Grow as something to keep those numbers trending up.

“This is the most support I’ve seen out of the community. The boys and girls are watching and waiting on the day ‘Mr. David’ (Franklin) or other volunteers are going to show up,” she said. “Having that community support has been powerful for the school, especially the teachers. They feel the support because sometimes you can feel like you’re out there by yourself.”

Many of the students at Cloverleaf, a Title I school, live with relatives in nearby extended-stay hotels, Barge added. “We have a high level of students in poverty, living in the hotels with a single parent. This program gives them another adult at a different level to help them with their reading. It’s a different relationship than with a teacher.”

Harris notes how such a program lends itself to the schedule of retired or senior adults.

“We’ve got a lot of experience,” he noted. “But the key isn’t the academic knowledge you share, it’s the spiritual knowledge. This program is about helping kids learn to read but also showing them there’s something different about us.”

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