At-Risk Kids Get the Key to Early Learning Success PREP Program Turns Poor Language and Social Skills Around

Article excerpt

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 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. "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. …

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