Boston’s Channing Elementary School draws UU tutors

Boston’s Channing Elementary School draws UU tutors

Interfaith program provides classroom assistants, clothing, school supplies, and food
Jane Greer


When noted Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing wrote about education in the 19th century, he probably never dreamed that one day his name would serve as a bridge between a struggling Boston elementary school and the Unitarian Universalist Association. But thanks to an enterprising teacher at the William Ellery Channing School in Boston and UU volunteers, that is exactly what happened.

In 2007, a teacher at the William Ellery Channing School in the Hyde Park section of Boston contacted the UUA about getting a portrait of William Ellery Channing. The Channing School is a public elementary school whose student population is 90 percent African American and Latino. More than 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. The school has no gym, no arts and music program, and a non-functioning library.

The request for Channing’s portrait was forwarded to the Rev. John Buehrens, current minister of First Parish in Needham, Mass., and former UUA president, who arranged to get the school a high-quality reproduction of a portrait from Harvard Divinity School. But when Buehrens had a chance to talk with the principal and staff at length, he learned that the needs at the Channing School were greater than just a portrait. These needs included tutoring and classroom help for students.

He knew just what to do. “I had done a partner school project when I was minister at All Souls Church in New York,” Buehrens said. So he decided to set up a similar partnership between the Channing school and the Needham congregation.

The Rev. Cheryl Lloyd offered her assistance coordinating the project. Lloyd is a community minister associated with First Unitarian Society in Newton, Mass. Community ministers generally work outside of the church in the community as chaplains, community organizers, and social justice advocates.

Lloyd, who lives with her family in Newton, an upper middle class suburb of Boston, was eager to see the playing field leveled for the Channing students. “Our goal is to supply support, materials, and encouragement to the school and its students where gaps exist,” she said. “I was able to give my own kids opportunities in terms of education and extracurricular activities. I want to see that all children have the same opportunity.”

In 2007, she applied for a grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalist Social Responsibility and was awarded $8,000. This was followed by a second grant of $11,000 in 2008. With money from other sources, Lloyd has raised a total of $26,000.

The tutoring program, which is called the William Ellery Channing Elementary School Partnership, sends approximately 24 volunteers into the school each week. Most work as teacher’s assistants in the classroom for an afternoon or morning each week. Some are working to revitalize the school library. Most are UUs although Lloyd emphasized that this is an interfaith effort welcoming all volunteers.

The tutors come from all walks of life and include engineers, lawyers, and writers. “A lot of the tutors are retired teachers and special education people,” said Lloyd, “So they’re using their gifts. They really love being there!”

One of those is Ruth Kolbe, a retired reading specialist who works one morning a week with a second grade class. Kolbe often circulates around the classroom helping children with reading and spelling. Since there is a wide range of abilities in the class, some children need a lot of extra help. Kolbe is also working with two children in the process of learning English.

“They all love adult attention,” she said. “It’s wonderful to interact with them. The most rewarding thing is to see them making progress with their reading. . . or to get through to someone who’s been struggling with something.”

Linda Rinearson, a member of First Unitarian Society, volunteers one afternoon a week as a teacher’s assistant for a fifth-grade class. Rinearson, who is retired, has a background in mathematics and computer science.

“Since ‘Rinearson’ is a difficult name to pronounce, I told them they can call me Ms. Rhino,” she said with a laugh.

This year she is helping to teach science. But she also helps individual children keep up. Massachusetts has a rigorous program of testing and there is pressure on teachers and tutors to keep everyone up to speed, a difficult task when classrooms include children who are still learning English.

“Sometimes I feel like what I give them most is encouragement,” Rinearson said. “Once we were talking about the future and the kind of work the children could expect. I told the class that there would definitely be enough jobs for everyone in the future—not just for a few. At the end of my talk, the students applauded!”

A retired librarian, Marianne Hudec, from the Needham church is working to revitalize the school library, Lloyd said. She and four or five volunteers have been organizing books and applying spine labels. Eight bookshelves were donated to the project and several churches have held book drives where they have collected books from a required list.

Churches have also collected winter coats, mittens, hats, school supplies, and food for the Channing students. The Partnership has also supplied money for extracurricular activities such as drama and African dance.

The Channing school’s principal, Dr. Deborah D. Dancy, is thrilled about the program. “The volunteers are simply invaluable,” she told the Boston Globe for a December 18, 2008 story. “The economy is suffering and resources are becoming less available. But at the same time, demand is getting much higher. Massachusetts has one of the highest standards for education, yet we are not where we need to be.”

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