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At-Risk Kids Get the Key To Early Learning Success

PREP program turns poor language and social skills around

During its first summer three years ago, a free tutoring program for minority children from Nashville's poorest housing projects made a key mistake. It picked a location across the hall from regular public school summer classes.

Public school students were constantly creeping over and trying to join the classes, says Sandra Smithson, a Roman Catholic nun who created the program and is guiding its rapid growth.

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"From then on we had to have a separate location just so we wouldn't have to lock out the other kids," Ms. Smithson says.

Smithson's nonprofit endeavor, called Project Reflect Educational Programs (PREP), started when she realized children in the projects were not getting the early educational training they needed.

"These kids have such poor language and social skills, they fail as soon as they enter first grade," she explains. "By third grade they're off the academic track altogether."

To address that need, she created an after-school and six-week summer tutoring program for children ages 5 to 7. Funded by private donations and city funds, the free program aims to spur higher achievement through intensive coaching in academic and social areas. Although PREP focuses heavily on language and reading, students also take karate, basketball, music, and art.

"The first summer, those kids had to be hauled kicking and screaming through the doors, but two months later the same kids cried when the program was over," Smithson says.

Most important, the change in attitude and improved school performance endured through the school year. The original plan was to bring children back for a second or third summer, but this additional instruction has seldom proved necessary.

Out of the 107 youngsters who attended PREP last summer, only 15 will need to be enrolled in this summer's session. So far, about 350 students have participated in the program since 1994.

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"I failed third grade," says 1996 PREP student Lawrence Pirtle. "I was told I would have to repeat, but I learned more in six weeks than I did all year long."

He added proudly that he entered fourth grade according to schedule.

PREP's success, Smithson believes, is its small teacher to student ratio (1 to 10) plus very well-trained teachers. "We offer the best elements of private education," she says, "which is too expensive for the families who need it most."

Parent Marilyn Smith says the program is "fabulous." "The phonics was reinforced to the degree where my child can read anything," she says.

PREP has worked closely with metropolitan Nashville public schools this year. It provided workshops to all kindergarten through third-grade teachers.

Richard Benjamin, the Metro Nashville School superintendent, thinks the program offers "a combination of good teaching and caring interactions with kids. They work right in the heart of a difficult area." Dr. Benjamin is especially impressed by Mary Craighead, who leads teacher training.

Ms. Craighead has focused her 30-year career on teaching black children from severely deprived backgrounds. "I watched as these children came along and they had nothing," she says. "They couldn't hold a pencil. They didn't know the letters in the alphabet."

To teach these youngsters, Craighead has written a step-by-step guide, "Reading Success: A Teacher's Basic Guide," which PREP now markets nationally to raise money for the program.

Craighead believes at-risk children often fail because they don't understand what they're being asked to do. She takes students from extremely simple material to the more complex.

Craighead also emphasizes that teachers must model the behavior they expect. "You can't just shout, 'those children need self-control. It's the teacher who's got to show self-control."

Smithson contends PREP does not simply help kids "feel good," but also stresses discipline. Next to the blackboard in each classroom, a sign clearly announces: "We obey our teachers."

"When these children arrive, they're fighting everybody and everything," Smithson says. "It takes the better part of a week to help them see they don't need to solve every problem by slugging."

While not teaching any set of religious beliefs, PREP provides a foundation in Judeo-Christian values. "Ninety-nine percent of our children are American Baptist so we emphasize Judeo-Christian beliefs," explains Smithson, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis Catholic Order. "But if I had a student from another faith, say Muslim, I'd try to find someone who could support that child's religious values."

Recently, Nashville Metro Development and Housing Agency gave PREP money to work at two more housing projects. And this summer, PREP has a new home, a former school building donated by the city.

Smithson seems a little surprised by PREP's success, but Craighead is confident of the approach: "You don't force children to learn, you free them to learn."

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