Church-school partnership

Reading program for summer funded by Lutheran neighbor

July 18, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Summer school had been in session scarcely a week at Thomas Johnson Elementary when one beginning reader turned in a list of 30 books she had finished.

Another third-grade girl, who struggles to read, is trying to catch up to her peers. She might not close the gap during the summer session, but she will be closer because of it, said reading teacher Maria Zozulak.

Summer schools and summer reading camps are not unique in Baltimore -- many have been launched in recent years amid the push for increased reading instruction. But the summer school at Thomas Johnson is unusual in the source of its support: a $12,000 donation by Christ Lutheran Church.

The 1,200-member church is paying for four of the school's teachers to instruct pupils from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday for six weeks. It also provided the salary of a librarian who keeps the school's library open for two hours a week, providing pupils ready access to its books.

The church-school partnership began more than a year ago as the Lutheran congregation, located near the Inner Harbor, was seeking to make a difference in a South Baltimore school and chose Thomas Johnson, a short drive south on Light Street.

Last summer, the church financed a science summer school there. When that was a success, the church expanded support and hired three of the school's teachers to work with pupils one hour each day after school.

"They focused on the same kind of curriculum [used] during the day, but were able to give a lot of extra attention," said Lindy Utermohle, the church's director of social ministry. "The children started to improve almost immediately. The kids really loved it. I was amazed how attentive they were."

Utermohle and other church members volunteered at the school as well, helping to provide extra attention for pupils. One member taught art classes; another sewed a large school banner.

The summer program was aimed at giving more support to pupils who are reading below grade level, but open to any who wanted to participate. Pupils who attend, Zozulak said, won't have the usual catching up to do in September -- unlike those who may not have read a book or used a pencil in two months.

Principal Thomas Bowmann decided to focus attention during the just-completed school year on making reading a daily part of every child's life, because they had been reading little outside of school. He challenged his pupils to read 8,000 books. They read more than 11,000 -- and earned a trip to an Orioles game.

Pupil surveys at the beginning and end of the school year showed that a growing percentage are reading at home and see themselves as good readers.

At an early session in the church-funded summer program, second-grade teacher Jennifer Grinath was reading "The Patchwork Quilt" to children. She introduced vocabulary words -- anxious, clutch, murmur, stiffen -- and asked numerous questions about the story.

With only a dozen children in her class, she could give each more attention than they would get during the school year. The summer school offers incentives to children who attend each week, including field trips to sports stadiums and local museums.

Besides funding the summer school -- which provides spaces for 70 of the school's 400 pupils -- Christ Lutheran has given the school a list of parishioners willing to talk to children about their respective professions, interests or travels under a program it calls "Opening the World to TJ."

The church's support of Thomas Johnson is one part of a social ministry that includes providing space in its basement for a homeless shelter and mentoring refugee families.

"They have been wonderful," Bowmann said of the church. "They have been a real investor in our community."

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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