When I first see her each week, we usually discuss the menagerie of cats that resides at her home. I get the latest on kitten behavior—why certain names were chosen for specific cats, which cat got lost in the attic and the like. Sometimes Latonya is wearing her glasses; sometimes she’s not. They seem to get bent or broken with some regularity. She’s a busy girl.
Martha “Heidi” Zophy, the school’s reading teacher, has our lesson mapped out in a very organized fashion. Heidi worked with Calvin’s director of community relations, Carol Rienstra, to recruit 16 Calvin College alumni and employees to assist in the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ HOSTS program. HOSTS means “Helping One Student To Succeed.” The purpose of the program is to give elementary school students some extra, individualized time to improve reading and comprehension skills.
“The key to many educational doors is reading and understanding what was read,” says Heidi. Her intense dedication to every one of her Ottawa Montessori kids is inspiring. She knows many, many details about the educational and personal histories of all of her charges and develops a HOSTS game plan for each.
Latonya has particularly enjoyed reading through the Little Bill series, developed by Bill Cosby and based on stories of his youth. She is now working through the Arthur series, chronicling the exploits of school friends who happen to be diverse animals. She reads a chapter, and then I do. Tomorrow, she’ll read the chapter I read today, and another HOSTS volunteer will read the chapter beyond. Most of the time, she works hard at it.
After reading, we work on the spelling and meaning of words in her “Word Bank” and then play a word comprehension game. The half-hour flies by, and I am sorry to see her skip out the door back to class.
The Calvin/HOSTS connection is just one of many partnerships the college has with the Grand Rapids Public Schools. This semester 34 Calvin students are serving as teacher aides or student teachers throughout the system. The Service-Learning Center, through its program of combining educational requirements with service, brought 343 students into local public schools this year. Calvin’s Office of Pre-College Programs builds ties between college, school and church—such as Professor Arden Ruth Post’s “Alexander Literacy Experience” with Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church at Alexander Elementary School (see p. 5) and “Campau Computer Kids” with New Hope Missionary Baptist Church at Campau Square Elementary School. And all of this is just a start.
Scores of Calvin alumni are employed in these schools, and, even symbolically, the GRPS/Calvin bond is visible, since the college’s old Franklin campus is now the home of the administration of the public schools. This April, senior GRPS administrators and principals met with a core group of Calvin faculty and staff to discuss future plans for collaboration between the two organizations.
All of this has reminded me that, as Calvin College alumni are taught to use their gifts and talents to build God’s Kingdom, the path to service need not lead any further than the school across the street. Whether that building advertises a Christian, Catholic, public or special needs institution, there are certainly many possibilities for mentoring or tutoring a student or to give helpful aid to the faculty and staff.
It all comes down to being there for just one child. God’s child.
Heidi says that Latonya is making great strides this year. Her reading and comprehension levels steadily improve, and she delights in tackling the next book or displaying “conquered” words from her Word Bank folder.
This wonderful girl reminds me of many of God’s gifts, some of them often overlooked: sight, language, reading, writing, books, libraries, teachers, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, schools, janitors, cats, Dr. Seuss, eyeglasses, playgrounds, vacations … and the warmth that a bright smile can bring to a day.
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