Yvonne and José moved with their parents to Shelbyville, Ky., from Central America when they were second graders. Their parents were looking for work in the agricultural and horse industry but wanted to ensure their children received a quality education, recognizing the language barrier could present some challenges.
According to the family, the public schools welcomed the children with open arms, recognizing their parents’ desire to see them succeed. The teachers immediately saw the need for one-on-one help with literacy and reading comprehension.
That’s when a member of First Presbyterian Church of Shelbyville approached her pastor to see what the congregation could do to help. With seed money from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), First Presbyterian teamed with three other local churches to create Arriba Niños, a literacy and tutoring program. Volunteers from First Presbyterian as well as Centenary Methodist, Annunciation Roman Catholic and First Christian Churches formed a covenant to work together to meet the growing needs of children like Yvonne and José. What started as a literacy initiative quickly evolved into a full-blown tutoring program.
“People just said yes, they would help,” says Diane Cook, executive director for Arriba Niños. “Members of all four congregations live their faith by their witness to the children. We love and care for one another. Together we make a difference for these children and in our community.”
Only 18 percent of schools meet basic reading standards according to church officials overseeing the Educate a Child initiative. The US Department of Education has reported significant shortages of teachers in bilingual education as well as math, science and special education.
The national component of the campaign focuses on two main objectives: strengthening early childhood education and reducing the high school dropout rate. Presbyterian churches across the country are being encouraged to get involved in their own communities through similar tutoring programs, organizing afterschool programs and connecting with local school boards.
Cook credits the public school system in Shelbyville as a key partner in the process. Teachers identify and invite students who might benefit from the program and introduce it to their parents.
“I want the children to be successful. Providing one-on-one assistance makes a difference and it’s rewarding,” says Faun Fishback, a member of First Christian Church and one of the first program volunteers. “These are smart children with a language barrier, and we can help remove that barrier. Their success is our community’s success.”
Program leaders say the initiative has come full circle. A new generation of children is now being tutored by some of its original participants.
“We see the students finish school, get jobs and go on to college,” says Cook. “They are successful and in turn, give back. The program is very rewarding.”
As for Yvonne and José, they’ve never forgotten what they received from the program in Shelbyville. Church leaders say Yvonne is now in college on a full scholarship and tutors in the program. José is in high school and tutors second graders.