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A different zip code, a different type of school

Posted December 3, 2008 06:48 AM

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While Newton residents debate the merits of the $197 million construction of Newton North High School, or the millions the city can allocate to public schools this year, William Ellery Channing Elementary School in Hyde Park is still without a gym. At Channing, physical education class is often bowling in the hallways.

Reverend Cheryl Lloyd of the First Unitarian Society of Newton is working to lessen this equity gap. As the coordinator of the William Ellery Channing Elementary School Project, Lloyd is in charge of 24 volunteers (six of which are Newton residents) who do everything from tutoring math to teaching writing skills. And, with a budget of $26,000 (part from fundraising and part from a Unitarian Universalist social responsibility grant), Lloyd can also afford to bring in people to teach extracurricular programs like Hip Hop dancing and drama classes.

Living in Newton, Lloyd is only a fifteen-minute drive away from the Channing school, and the disparate nature of the two neighborhoods has not been lost on her.

“When I was in Divinity School in Roxbury I used to come home to Newton and not know where I was.” Lloyd said. “There was such a disconnect between where I lived and where I worked. My son would tell me he needed a third tennis racket because everyone else on the team had three, and I would have just come back from an area where the schools don’t even have gyms to play tennis in.”

This Unitarian-sponsored but nondenominational program began in 2007. Struggling to keep up with the high academic demands of Massachusetts, Channing, a school of 325 students and 60 faculty members, needed some outside help. Since the school is named after one of the most prominent Unitarian preachers of the 18th century, they wrote to the Unitarian Universalist Association, and a partnership was soon born.

“The volunteers are simply invaluable,” said Dr. Deborah D. Dancy, the school’s principal and only administrator. “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. There’s no administration, and some students can’t even get their hands on pencil and paper. How are we supposed to keep up? Well, the only way we can come close is with the help of volunteers.”

For Catherine Senghas, a ministerial intern at the First Unitarian Society of Newton, tutoring at the school is one of the highlights of her week.

“It’s much easier to get up on Tuesdays, because I know I’m excited about going in and helping the kids out with math,” she said. “I love it for two reasons. First, I really enjoy seeing that ‘aha’ moment that kids have when they first understand a problem. And, just as important, when you start volunteering on a regular basis like this, you realize its not charity work, its social justice kind of work. You are making a difference systemically, not just case by case.”

Dancy said that for her, many of the problems with Channing stem from a lack of equality in the public school system.

“The lack of equity is unbelievable,” she said. “On one side of the street a school might have art, music phys ed, and on the other side of the school there is nothing other than the required subject areas.”

With the help of the program, Channing is hoping to do more for students than just teach them what’s going to be on the next MCAS.

“We’re trying to teach the whole child, from the right side of the brain to the left.” Dancy said. “We want to encourage creativity in addition to math skills, and we wouldn’t have the resources to do that without volunteers. They don’t just save us tens of thousands of dollars, but they save us hundreds of thousands of dollars in teaching costs. Now the children can learn from lawyers and doctors and writers and can really see what’s out there for them in the future.”

-- Ben Terris

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