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.
"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
"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.
"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
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. …