Volunteers at the Lean on Me Mondays tutoring program said they are already seeing the benefits of their efforts to support academics at a handful of Waco schools facing the possibility of closure by the state.

The program organized by the Waco NAACP is about halfway through its seven-week run leading up to state testing season, which lasts from mid-April to mid-May. Student participation has doubled since Lean on Me Mondays started three weeks ago, NAACP President Peaches Henry said Monday.

“We had 20 the first week and 40 this week, and it’s about to get way bigger,” Henry said. “It’s great. More kids and more parents are hearing about it and are sending their children. And now that we have transportation in place, our numbers are increasing.”

Initially, some parents interested in the after-school program had concerns about how to get their children to the weekly event from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. while they worked. Henry said officials with local churches have stepped up to offer transportation for children.

“They need us, and we need them, because one day they may be taking care of me or may be my politician, you know?” said bus driver Louise Gillum, who also serves as the childcare director at Living Word Church of God in Christ.

Henry and members from other organizations started the program to reinforce need-to-know skills each Monday at the Dewey Community Center to support Waco Independent School District third- through eighth-grade students from J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School.

Those three schools, along with Alta Vista and Brook Avenue elementary schools, could be closed by the state if they fail state academic standards again this year.

“We want to support the teachers with what they’re already doing with their work. We want to motivate the kids and get them excited about learning and not be afraid because we’re all in this, and we’re all in this together,” Henry said. “We just want to encourage them, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing. These kids are so excited, particularly the ones we’re just now getting transportation for. They’ve been chomping at the bit to get here.”

The district is developing an in-district charter proposal with Prosper Waco that would keep the schools open, but the charter system would not be necessary if the schools perform well enough on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness in May.

With about 40 volunteers, almost enough for each student to have individualized tutoring, the children start each Monday session with a hot meal and a small pep rally. Volunteers ask students if they know how to cheer and if they have ever cheered for themselves.

The tutors shout, “Lean on” while the children shout back, “Me.” Then, they spell out the word, “smart,” before splitting into groups to start their work.

“We have retired teachers, teachers who are still teaching and they’re amazing. Last week, there was a teacher from J.H Hines. Keep in mind, she’s been teaching all day long. I had to make her stop,” Henry said as she welcomed the first of two students Gillum dropped off Monday. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to stop. We’ve got to send the kids home.’ She said, ‘OK, we’ve just got two more problems. They were just moving, and the kids were getting it.”

Waco ISD officials identified literacy as the biggest academic challenge for the district in the next few years, and if students can master reading skills, they can tackle other subjects better, Henry said.

“I have seen the children try,” said retired educator Brenda Freeman, president of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority.”That’s one of the most important things to get them in the mode, so they will attempt to do whatever the lesson desires.”

Freeman taught for 36 years, 29 of which were in Waco ISD with first- through fourth-graders, she said.

Only 54 percent of the district’s third-graders read on grade level, district data shows. STAAR testing starts in fourth grade, so the third-graders attending the program have a chance to get ahead of the curve, Freeman said.

“Children need to understand learning is not just something you do at school all the time,” Freeman said. “Learning is a process that goes on every day of their lives.”

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