“Things are about to get very chaotic,” says Rachel DeLaune, an associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Boca Raton.
DeLaune, who leads FUMC Boca’s tutoring program at Coral Sunset Elementary School, is expecting her second child in late April, so the timing of her maternity leave coincides fortuitously with school winding down.
The tutoring program, concluding its second year, is rooted in the partnership that began several years ago when the church adopted Coral Sunset as part of the Boca Helping Hands Backpack Program. Every Wednesday morning at 8:30, DeLaune and other volunteers fill up to 300 backpacks with nonperishable food that will get youngsters, who otherwise might not have enough to eat, through the weekend.
At the Title I school, in southwest Boca Raton, 76 percent of the approximately 600 students receive free and reduced meals. It’s a heavily diverse group—36 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black—with students speaking Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Spanish, French, Russian and Mandarin, said Vice Principal Jeannie Pierre-Louis.
“We were an ‘A’ school for years, then dropped to ‘B.’ Last year we dropped to a ‘C,’ and that was devastating for us as a school community,” said Pierre-Louis. “Then we lost our Title I funding and were relying on partnerships for help. We had to get very creative about how we were going to find funding and support to help lower-performing kids for whom tutoring was no longer available. We had to find other means. We did fundraisers and got donations, but it wasn’t nearly enough to help that very specific group testing lower than 25 percent.”
Once again, the timing was providential: DeLaune asked Pierre-Louis if there was some other way they could help the school.
“When I came to Boca two years ago, I was figuring out what was expected of me as associate pastor. I knew I had a heart for public education,” said DeLaune, 32, whose mother and sister are both teachers. “A group of us wanted to start tutoring, and at Coral Sunset, we were already connected.”
The first year, DeLaune and fellow Associate Pastor Tom Tift had about 10 church volunteers helping students an hour a week with math, reading and preparing for state testing.
“There were growing pains,” DeLaune said. “Some tutors just wanted to read to the kids, or weren’t consistent or reliable; others didn’t communicate well with teachers or vice versa. So they chose not to return this year.”
For a while, it was just DeLaune and Tift working with fourth- and fifth-graders, respectively.
“Like anything, it takes some time to develop and find your stride,” said Tift, who the kids call “Mr. T,” and who is a 20-year veteran at the church, soon to retire. “Our goal— and we haven’t yet perfectly achieved this—is to say: ‘We’re here. What’s best for you? How can we serve you?’ It’s really strengthened our relationships with school staff. We’re not coming in and telling them how much we know. We’re saying we don’t know.”
Their efforts paid off. In just a year, the school grade rose from a “C” to a “B.”
“We’ve been very blessed to have this partnership,” said Pierre-Louis. “Those kids in the upper grades all made gains. We owe our ‘B’ to everyone who stepped in and helped. It takes a community to raise our kids, and this is a prime example of a community coming together. I love the fact that the church leadership is knee-deep in trying to help our kids succeed, and also that they’re enjoying what they’re doing. Even though we have Title I funding now, they’re still here.”
Four new tutors recently joined the program and are reading with first-graders—the first time they’ve worked with younger students.
“They are all retired people because they have the time,” said DeLaune. “We make sure to keep in good communication with teachers and administrators. We want to do this well, with excellence, not to become a burden. I ask for feedback: ‘What do we need to work on?’”
“We have really good communication,” Pierre-Louis affirmed. She takes new tutors to class on their first day, introduces them and explains to students what their role is.
“They work with the same kids every week, so the consistency is there. Instead of me being the constant middle person, they’ve got a line of communication with the teachers, so they’re prepared the next week. If a tutor doesn’t work out, we move them—teachers are very particular who they let work with the kids.”
In households where the parents are often working two jobs to make ends meet and don’t have the time to get involved, the kids “are hungry for one-on-one adult time,” DeLaune said. And for many students, English is not their first language.
“They’re embarrassed at not being able to read or understand the words, so I encourage them, saying, ‘I know that’s a hard word, let’s sound it out.’ One Brazilian boy would speak barely above a whisper; he didn’t want the other kids to hear him make mistakes.”
DeLaune, who recalls being “a terrible test-taker,” says “there’s so much pressure and anxiety on kids to perform well on tests that they don’t love learning anymore. But every time I come to class, the kids get excited and say ‘Miss Rachel! Am I reading with you today?’ That’s why I do this. Learning to love to read is so foundational. And seeing kids feel good about knowing how to do a math problem they didn’t understand two weeks ago—that, for me, is a ‘God sighting.’”
The tutors work with a small group of students who are all on about the same learning level—using fun shapes to learn basic geometry or algebra—and freeing up the teacher to work with a larger group.
“I always thank teachers like I thank the military,” said DeLaune, who added, “I’m honest about being a pastor. I ask school staff, ‘how are your kids? How are you doing? How can I pray for you?’ I don’t want to be a pushy evangelical. It’s about treating someone with respect.”
Tift, who recently spent a week in Haiti, took a moment to talk about it with the class. “The kids were really interested in learning about another country and what it’s like there. We can help broaden kids’ minds about the world, show them more than plot points on a graph,” he said. “God keeps opening doors. You think you’re just going to teach math, but it’s so much more than that.”
In addition to tutoring, DeLaune and Tift help out with school book fairs, read in classrooms during literacy week, help students figure out their gift budgets for holiday shopping and bake cakes with them for Mother’s Day.
“We do it in the same way we would want people to be with our kids,” DeLaune said.
The church hopes to expand the program to other elementary schools in the community. DeLaune acknowledges it’s difficult for some people and “will take some time to convince them: ‘Let’s get uncomfortable together. Let’s serve in schools where a lot of kids don’t speak English well.’”
DeLaune, whose grandfather was a pastor, says being out in the community “is a DNA shift from my grandfather’s time. His job was to be in the office 9 to 5. We can’t only be around those who vote like us, dress like us, speak like us—that’s not our calling. We’ve got a lot of work to do reaching people. We have to go to them, and our place to do that is in this school.
“My understanding is of a God who said, ‘love my people,’ and this is a way to do that,” she said. “You can’t love community unless you know them.”
--Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale.