Jennifer Cass teaches a class with nine autistic students at Tampa’s Seminole Heights Elementary School. The students range from the second grade to the fifth, and it’s a constant struggle to find ways they can effectively practice the extra reading and other skills they need.
All they had was one computer and scheduling was tricky—particularly for using a program called Istation, an intervention that helps kids gain in reading and comprehension—and students didn’t like the computer much anyway. It required them to sit at a desk for about 20 minutes and complete the assigned tasks, and that wasn’t going over well.
|Matt Horan, pastor at Seminole Heights UMC and former middle school teacher, said he feels burdened to support principals and schools. By providing needed resources to neighborhood classrooms, he hopes that great teachers become energized to stay at challenged schools.|
School board funds are scarce, so Cass went to a support website called DonorsChoose.org over Christmas break and placed her request. Was there an angel out there willing to buy two iPads for use in her class?
Turns out, help was right in the neighborhood at Seminole Heights United Methodist Church. Pastor Matt Horan saw the request, and soon Cass had her iPads.
Seminole Heights has a line item in its budget to cover such things, having decided that’s a more permanent way to show its commitment than doing a fundraiser whenever a need pops up or finding a single member to write a check.
It probably helps that Horan is a former middle school English teacher who was on track to become a principal. That changed when he received God’s calling to ministry. It didn’t change his commitment to helping schools.
“I do wish God had told me he wanted me to minister before I went to grad school,” Horan said with a chuckle. “But I do have the burden on my heart to help schools however we can.
“We believe that by being good neighbors to our schools, we can have a positive impact on the whole neighborhood, produce great students and develop future community leaders.”
Cass noticed a difference in her class immediately after the iPads arrived.
“It has changed things for the better,” she said. “I think the students like the iPads better because they can hold it in their hands and move it around, which you can’t do with a regular computer. It’s pretty awesome to see. Now the kids are excited and motivated when it’s their time for the intervention.
“I can tell they are reading more fluently now and their comprehension has improved. It has really helped me to do my job better.”
The work between Seminole Heights UMC and local schools has been ongoing. The church recently sent a check to replace a 25-year-old sound system at Memorial Middle School and was awarded the 2016 Family-Community Involvement Award from Hillsborough County Public Schools from among more than 40 nominees.
Church members also host a sing-a-long for Seminole Heights Elementary students to unwind after stressful FSA testing. And the church provides gifts such as bicycles anonymously to the school.
“It’s not about getting the word out about us, as a church, so we can get more members to attend,” Horan said. “It’s about being good neighbors.”
That’s the message Horan would like other churches to copy with their congregations.
“It’s about having an impact on your neighborhood. If you want to help the neighborhood, you have to go to where the most people are—and that’s the schools.”
Cass sees the value that those good neighbors have had on her students.
“It has been amazing,” she said. “I just want to thank the church from the bottom of my heart.”
--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.