"I believe the service of churches in our public schools will be what saves them both," says Jackie Flaum, Team Read head coach at the nearly 4,000-member Germantown United Methodist Church, Memphis, Tennessee.
The church's Urban Haven Project developed Team Read in partnership with education professionals at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School, half an hour away in north Memphis. Through the program, volunteers teach 1,000 foundational words to second-graders while maintaining their own flexible schedules.
"We just finished our most successful year ever," Flaum says. "The average second-grader gained 266 Fry Words over the course of the year. Fry Words are the foundational words of reading, and if you don't know them on sight, you cannot read.
"Team Read proved enormously popular at church," she adds. The congregation had more than 75 volunteers – called "coaches" – with little turnover.
Coaches – retirees, moms of other schoolchildren, workers sharing their lunch hour – each donate one hour per week from Labor Day until April 30. They tutor two children for 30 minutes each, during or after class. They review "sight words," words children should recognize on sight. "We have a coach for every second-grader twice a week," Flaum said.
The project has been a major success. On average, Flaum said, tutored children learned 200 words per year, which got the attention of local educators. In 2012-13, only two Team Reads existed, but that number has grown.
In August 2013, Flaum recalls, "Germantown United Methodist Church offered training for volunteers, and 100 people showed up for an all-day session. Many of those were from other churches that grew programs at their schools."
The project worked so well that the Shelby County School System urged its schools to adopt the program. The school system conducted a study showing that coached students learned nearly twice as many foundational words within the span of a year as other children their age.
An amazing partnership
"Thanks to the school system's hard work and the dedication of church volunteers," Flaum says, "Team Read is now in 30 elementary schools, and more than 600 volunteers coach in the program. All but five have faith-based coaches. Next year, 10 more schools are set to begin, bringing the total to 40.
"This all grew from a program developed by dedicated volunteers at Germantown Methodist and smart educators at Caldwell-Guthrie. Everybody who tries this says, 'It's so easy! You can see progress.'"
Excited by the results, Germantown United Methodist Church hopes to expand Team Read even more. Flaum says the church plans to promote it, offering a marketing plan along with Coach Playbooks, which give details about the program, educational materials and training.
But that's not all.
"More amazing is what has grown out of our partnership," she says. "One volunteer sensed a need for a weekend program to help food-insecure children, so now we provide 140 backpacks of food for kids. We have raised garden beds so the kids can use them for science, nutrition and fun. Our youth arranged for a company to donate a school uniform to every student at Caldwell-Guthrie. Our Russian missionary took our program to use in his English classes.
"Another volunteer personally took 40-some kids to the Memphis Grizzlies home game, got them hot dogs and arranged for the highest-honor students to stand with the team (some nearly fainted with joy right there) during the National Anthem.
"Our congregation has embraced this school," she said. Volunteers and students form bonds, and it isn't unusual to hear "my child," "my student" or "my teacher."
"I could go on and on!" Flaum exclaims. "And I will at the drop of a hat."
Adapted from Memphis Annual Conference website, www.memphis-umc.net, Feb. 4, 2014