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Education: Mentors ensure success of pre-K program

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

They sit on plastic chairs around a low table snacking on cinnamon-apple crisps from Trader Joe’s that are served on brown institutional paper towels. They talk about things they’ve done recently. Physicals for basketball. Paddleboarding. A book. A test.

Water drips from a faucet into dishes stacked in the sink. Their conversation is interrupted by voices on a loudspeaker. The morning announcements. The Pledge of Allegiance.

But in 20 minutes in a teacher workroom at Waccamaw Middle School, two women and two 12-year-olds renewed a bond and made it stronger.

Jasani Simmons and Kayla Benson have been Miss Ruby’s Kids for most of their lives.

The program that started in 2003 by promoting family literacy for toddlers and their parents added mentors in 2009 to follow the children into pre-school and beyond. There were 13 children and 10 mentors the first year, which was focused on Waccamaw Elementary. The program is in eight of the county’s elementary schools, Waccamaw Intermediate and Coastal Montessori Charter School along with Waccamaw Middle. There are 71 children and 53 mentors.

The expansion of full-day pre-K in the public schools this year has increased the number of children who need mentors. There are 48 children on a waiting list, said Trish Lord, who coordinates the mentoring program and who has been Jasani’s mentor for the last four years.

“We never dreamed it would grow like this,” said Betsy Marlow, the executive director. “We thought that keeping contact with the child and the family was important. The factors that lead to failure don’t go away.”

Miss Ruby’s Kids also has 70 families that receive home visits twice a week. The visitors help parents develop literacy and verbal skills in children who are at risk of failure once they start school because their language skills lag behind those of their classmates. Those 2- and 3-year-olds will become eligible for the mentoring program when they turn 4 if they go into the public school pre-K program, so the need for mentors will only grow.

Most of the mentors are retirees. Most are women. Until recently, many were former teachers. All of them are volunteers, and that’s something the children are aware of. “They know you’re here because you want to be,” Lord said. “Somebody’s caring and they want to know how you’re doing.”

She and Lexi Johnson met with Jasani and Kayla. They usually meet one-on-one, but schedules are tough to manage for middle school students. The girls remember home visits when they were 2 and 3, mostly through photos they have seen. But they remember the tea parties they had when the mentoring program began. “I remember it all. Great memories,” Kayla said.

Mentoring is not tutoring, though sometimes mentors will help with academics. “The mentor’s goal is to build self-esteem in the child,” Lord said.

The program continues the support that begins with the home visits, Marlow said, but in a different way. The mentors see the children for 30 to 40 minutes at school and coordinate their visits with the child’s teacher. They also keep in touch with the parents.

“It’s not about taking over from the parent; it’s about supporting the parent,” Marlow said.

The bond that forms between the child and their mentor is program’s strength. Some mentors talk about their children as if they are grandchildren, Marlow said.

“You’re there for the child,” Lord said, “but if it’s a good mentoring relationship, you’re getting something out of it, too.”

“Just because we’re having fun doesn’t mean they’re not having fun,” Kayla said. She can envision becoming a mentor one day.

Lord recalled one mentor who was sure that his background gave him the skills to be an asset to any child. After some time in the program he told Lord he realized “all I needed to do was show up and listen,” she said.

Each child has different needs, said Teresa Peterson, who is one of the group’s original mentors. She also chaired the board of Miss Ruby’s Kids. “What’s best about our program is matching the mentors and kids based on the child’s needs. It’s a very personal match from the beginning,” she said. “We’re there for the whole child, whatever the child’s needs are.”

Because of that, the mentoring also changes as the child grows, but the fundamental remain. “There’s a lot of counseling and talking,” Peterson said.

The volunteer mentors undergo background checks and go through an interview that ensures their goals and expectations align with those of the program. They get training in building a relationship with a child and information about the school curriculum. That training continues during the year.

Keeping in touch with parents is often the most difficult part. “You lose some of the contact with parents when you change to mentoring from twice-weekly home visits,” Marlow said.

Yet Peterson points out that parents still give the program high marks on annual evaluations because they see the impact on their children. Teachers also rate it highly, though Lord said some will question why a child has a mentor when others in the class seem to have a greater need. She takes that as a tribute to the program’s success. “We’ve had these kids since they were 2,” she said. “It’s a cumulative effect.”

Jasani and Kayla are the oldest children in the mentoring program. Demands of instructional time make it hard to schedule in-school meetings as children get into higher grades. Kayla said she always asked if her mentor would follow her as she moved from the elementary to intermediate to middle schools. She would like Johnson to follow her to high school, but she isn’t sure her schedule will allow mentoring. “If I could, I would,” she said.

Marlow doesn’t know how the program will end up. There may be a natural cutoff or it may continue through high school. “We’ve got time to think about it,” she said. “We’re looking at all of our options.”

The likely result is that it will depend on the child, Peterson said. “From the beginning, the child is the center. Because of that it is constantly evolving.”

How to help: More information about the mentoring program is available at misrubyskids.net.

Kitchen tour helps nourish nonprofit

The kitchen is a natural gathering spot for people who support Miss Ruby’s Kids, a nonprofit that began making home visitors to develop family literacy a decade ago. When the group held its first kitchen tour last year, it limited tickets to 200 people and sold all of them through its board and staff.

For this year’s kitchen tour, there will be 300 tickets available to the public at $30. There are eight homes on the tour in Waverly, Prince George and DeBordieu.

“It’s a nice range of kitchens from the very traditional to the very contemporary,” said Teresa Peterson, who chairs this year’s tour committee.

There’s the DeBordieu kitchen with the LeCornue stove and its neighbor with the Brazilian teak floor and the farmhouse sink. A Prince George kitchen was remodeled around a stainless steel island and a piece of “blue parrot” granite. One of the Waverly kitchens features a dumb waiter. And most of the homes have views that rival their interiors, Peterson said.

On the inaugural tour, she said, most of the visitors seemed to take particular interest in the appliances and materials. “Several of the homeowners are foodies. They like using their kitchens,” Peterson said. “A lot of the owners stay all day and talk about their kitchens.”

There will also be trained docents at each home.

The tour is scheduled for Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets on the day will cost $35, if any are available, Peterson said.

Registration will open at 9:30 a.m. in the lobby of the Waccamaw High auditorium. Visitors will get a brochure with directions to each of the homes. They aren’t handicapped-accessible or suited to children in strollers. “There are a lot of stairs to negotiate,” Peterson said.

For an extra $30, there is lunch and a tour of the commercial kitchen at Carefree Catering. Those tickets are also limited and need to be ordered in advance.

For tour and lunch tickets, call Miss Ruby’s Kids at 436-7199.

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