On Wednesday, January 10th, over 140 volunteers from across the County filled Brunswick Community College’s Odell Williamson Auditorium, all of them eager to become a part of something truly special. Comprised mostly of retired seniors, the group came to partake in the BEST (Brunswick Early Support Team) for Kids Initiative, a partnership between Brunswick County Schools and community leaders dedicated to helping all children become confident readers by the end of the third grade.
In 2012, then newly elected District Attorney Jon David knew he wanted to utilize his position to support the children of Brunswick County. Through his own experiences as a father to two young children, David understood the critical importance of early childhood education.
“I realized that my children had opportunities and privileges that are not shared by other children in our area, so I was determined to help level the playing field and give all children the chance at living the ‘American Dream,’” says David.
David decided to reach out to other area leaders, including the sheriff, superintendent, community college president, and elected clerk of court. From there he began hosting meetings at his office to discuss the group’s shared interests in the children of the area.
“We realized that all of us are stakeholders in the success of our kids in Brunswick County. We began looking around the region for best practices and things we could do to support our children,” says David. “We knew we wanted to target the most demographically challenged children in our community, and that we could change the arc of the future if we give them time, attention and resources at an early stage.”
Recognizing that Brunswick County is primarily rural, the leadership group determined that the best way to access the most children would be through the school system. With over 62% of the children in the system receiving free or reduced lunch daily, the team knew a problem certainly existed.
“That’s an alarming statistic when you consider that we’re regarded as a very wealthy county. We have many people retiring to the area that are affluent and living in gated golf course communities, yet their experiences and lifestyles are radically out of step with the local children. All of us as leaders felt the responsibility to help our kids and use the same people who are retiring to this area as a means to do that.”
David and the other County leaders set out to create BEST for Kids, a volunteer mentoring and tutoring initiative partnering retired community members with first-grade students. Initially, four elementary schools are piloting the program: Jessie Mae Monroe Elementary, Supply Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, and Virginia Williamson Elementary.
“We’re asking volunteers to give us one hour a week, split into two half-hour sessions, at one of these four schools. Kids thrive on continuity and stability, so we’re partnering people with the same child to walk them through a reading program called Letterland twice a week for the entire school year,” says David.
Considering that third-grade literacy is a tremendous predictor of future success in the school system, the reading program targets first-graders in hopes that the impacts will be greatest starting two years in advance of that critical time.
“We know that the third grade is a turning point for the acquisition of reading skills. At this point, instead of learning to read, students begin reading to learn. Our volunteers will be touching lives at the first-grade level, one by one, as they reach grade level and continue on,” says community leader and Clerk of Superior Court James J. MacCallum.
The Brunswick Early Success Team recognizes they are dealing with the same children in different contexts. The same child who ends up in the court system before the District Attorney’s office is frequently in contact with the sheriff’s office or the Department of Social Services. These community leaders share a common interest in the future of the County’s kids, and their goal is to work better together to prepare these children for a successful adulthood.
“Our ambition is to help put them on the path to becoming productive citizens, rather than a statistic. Ultimately, this initiative is about consciously stepping out of our silos as government leaders and thinking about how we can work better together to accomplish that purpose,” says David.
One of the most unique aspects of the BEST for Kids program is the mutually beneficial relationships formed between the County’s retired seniors and young children. David considers the partnerships to be a ‘win-win’ scenario for everyone involved.
“Not only are the kids benefiting from the mentorship and knowledge of people with incredible life experiences, but it’s a symbiotic relationship from the standpoint that these retired people are able to get their ‘grandkid fix.’ Since their own children and grandchildren frequently live out of state, this provides an outlet for them to be involved in the life of a child, and the child in turn to learn from them,” says David.
The response from the community has so far been overwhelming, with a tremendous turnout of volunteers present at the first training session earlier this month. Community leaders are very excited about the involvement of so many members of the Brunswick County community.
“What makes this such a special initiative is that it brings together so many elements of the community behind a very worthwhile common goal, which is helping kids to read,” says Patrick Litzinger, Assistant District Superintendent from the Harbor District NC Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Tommy Taylor, Executive Vice President of the United Way of the Cape Fear Area, feels proud to be a part of such a meaningful and impactful initiative. “BEST for Kids is an example of a community coming together in a united way and applying every available resource to a gap in our education infrastructure. The Brunswick Early Success Team is utilizing proven methods, volunteer time and talent and Brunswick County Schools curriculum to change the trajectory of our children’s future,” he says.
For more information and to find out how you can get involved, visit https://www.bcswan.net