By Todd Cohen
SILER CITY, N.C. — Susan Alston is on a mission to help children do better in school.
A para-educator at Horton Middle School in Pittsboro working with seventh- and eighth-graders who need academic enrichment, often because of social or developmental challenges, Alston three years ago launched a summer academic-enrichment program at her Siler City church.
After counting on volunteers and church support, Alston now is seeking a grant and corporate contributions needed to hire teachers, teaching assistants and an administrator.
A paid staff, Alston says, will provide the consistency the students need.
“The fault in the program is the lack of paid faculty and administration,” she says. “I need every child to know, when they enter the classroom, that ‘I’m going to see this face every day.’”
Housed at First Missionary Baptist Church, the “If I Can Read, I Can Win” program also has received support from Lambret’s Chapel Baptist Church, also in Siler City.
The program runs for six weeks, three days a week, eight hours a day.
Last summer, it served 50 students, providing lessons in reading, reading comprehension, and math.
“Reading is the key to every door you ever enter,” says Alston, who served as youth director at First Missionary Baptist for 15 years and now directs its drama program.
The summer program is open to all children, including pre-schoolers, and has attracted a diverse group that includes youngsters who are black, white and Hispanic, including some from low-income homes and some from as far away as Wake County.
A corps of 10 volunteers, including church members and teachers and retired teachers from local schools, provide the lessons, with high-school honors students from Jordan Matthews High School in Siler City serving tutors working one-on-one with the summer-program students.
With the support of The Rev. Barry R. Gray, the program raised $1,500 from a fundraising event at First Missionary Baptist, which also provided $3,000 to cover food and curricular materials.
And last summer, for the first time, the program charged a $5 fee for students whose families could afford to pay it.
This year, Alston says, she hopes to raise just over $40,000 to cover the cost of 10 teachers, 10 tutors and an administrator.
With the help of a grantwriter from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is working on a pro-bono basis, Alston is seeking a grant.
The grantwriter has been meeting once a week with an eight-member committee to develop the grant proposal.
Alston also will solicit local businesses and corporations for support.
Early each year, the program sends letters to about 30 local churches, inviting each of them to submit applications for five to six students who are congregation members, along with their report cards.
Students are selected based on those with the greatest academic need, Alston says.
The program begins the second week in June and, after it ends, parents are asked to complete a survey about its impact on their children.
Typical of the responses was one from a mother who said her son had increased his reading level at school by two points after participating in the program, while other parents said their children had returned to school with a “new outlook,” Alston says.
“The child felt like he or she could go back this particular year and do better because of the experience,” she says.
Many of the students who participate in the program are latch-key kids who otherwise would be home alone during the summer or on the streets, Alston says.
“The desire of this program,” she says, “is to keep their mind active during the summer months when they’re out of school.”