For almost 20 years, working off a shoestring budget made up mostly of donations, groups of unpaid volunteers have walked into middle schools in Wichita nearly every school day and helped kids improve basic math and reading skills on their lunch hours or after school.
Educators rate Success in the Middle as one of the more successful, unsung programs in the district, saying that it has raised grades and improved behavior in middle schools, where puberty kicks in and behavior, boredom and distraction can become problems.
School principals like Robert Garner say this group has brought about anywhere from a 7 to 10 percent gain in grades and assessment tests for academically challenged students at his school, Brooks Technology and Arts Magnet Middle School. At his school, near 27th and Hillside, 52 volunteers mentor about 150 students.
He said the volunteers raise grade point averages and attendance, and lower the number of assignments that don’t get done. He said not only is it an illustration of what can be done in spite of budget cuts but that it underscores what happens when an adult takes an active interest in a child’s life.
Jeff Freund, a principal in his first year at Coleman Middle School, near 13th and Rock Road, said he was startled at the beginning of the school year when he took over and met “a woman leading an army of volunteers, ready to help teach students.”
“They haven’t just helped them get better grades and test scores,” Freund said. “They help create a behavior turnaround, including with some of our most challenging kids.”
The woman was Judith Wencel, a Wichita physician’s wife who founded Success nearly 20 years ago when she started volunteering at Coleman, her daughters’ school. She saw that more children needed homework help than her children.
“One thing led to another,” she said.
Success now coordinates 261 volunteers serving about 879 students at 13 middle schools in Wichita, drawing volunteers from Wencel’s own recruiting and from Foster Grandparents, Youth Horizons, Compeer and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Most other large groups like this would cost more, and there is some cost to schools, spent in hiring site coordinators for the large number of volunteers. The district spent $50,000 last year on coordinators. It spent $18,000 this year, Wencel said. Donations took care of an additional $10,000. To fill the need for the rest of this year, she’s seeking an additional $16,000 in donations.
Freund says he’s watched her and her volunteers carefully study data on the students identified as in need of help.
“She runs a machine, efficient and awesome,” Freund said.
Volunteer Jim Vasey, a State Farm insurance company team manager, has served as a Success tutor/mentor at Coleman for nearly 18 years.
“I help them with math tables, or reading, how to sound out words.”
He comes in once every two weeks for an hour, and is working with two sixth-graders this year.
“You don’t always see an improvement in a student’s work, but you often do,” he said. “You can really see kids get quicker on reading or math tables, and you realize you’ve helped someone catch on.”
There’s substantial satisfaction in that, he said; charity is not only for those who receive.
Success could be a model for how to accomplish much with little, Freund said. It’s not the only program that has made a big difference in the district, he said.
“I came here (to Coleman) from North High and saw what good programs AVID (college-prep-type courses, heavy on mentoring and one-on-one work) can do. But Success shows once again what can happen when you match up kids with adults who care about them.”
Many of the good results, Freund said, are intangibles: attitudes, behaviors, whether a kid begins to set goals, whether a kid decides not to fail.
Wencel’s daughters left middle school long ago, but she’s still working, for free, at Coleman, helping coordinate the mentoring there and doing some of the one-on-one work herself.
Recently, she peeked into a lunchtime session run by Coleman volunteer Logan Posson, who had two kids in a small room. They were eating lunch and watching intently as Posson scribbled on a chalkboard. At first, what he wrote (and drew) looked deceptively simple. He drew a circle and made a cross in it, dividing it into four pieces.
“So I ordered a pizza, right?” he said. “And you eat half of it. So how many pieces are left?”
The answer, as the kids pointed out, was two, which sounds like a classroom question for first-graders rather than sixth-graders.
But then Posson drew this on the chalkboard: 2/y = 1/2.
“So tell me the relationship,” Posson said.
The boys stared intently.