The Learning Club helps struggling students succeedWritten by Emily Gibb | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Toledo Free Press, United Way of Greater Toledo and 13abc’s “Bridges” with Doni Miller are profiling 12 education initiative programs in Northwest Ohio. This is the 11th story in the series.
The Learning Club of Toledo helps about 250 struggling students succeed in school each year, building students’ confidence along the way.
Through seven programs at various locations throughout Toledo, the Learning Club fosters a sense of accomplishment and pride in what students can contribute by becoming independent learners, said Executive Director Deborah Apgar.
Apgar is also the director of the program, which is housed at the Zablocki Senior Center on Lagrange Street. Each site is set up the same way, from the table arrangement to the schedule of the session to the soothing classical music, she said.
Apgar said she tries to create an environment in first grade through high school where students can thrive, based on social and emotional learning.
“From the moment they walk through the door, it’s all about choices and consequences,” Apgar said.
Children earn points for their work, tests and bringing in their report cards and progress reports. They can then use those points to “shop” at the store — a table set up with different items that interest the students.
That connection between earning and learning provides a jump-start for students who are falling behind in school because of a lack of basic skills and a lack of motivation.
Even though the store is available at the end of each session, students who save their points to buy the more expensive things can earn interest points, similar to a bank account.
The more correct math problems and properly spelled words, the more points a student will receive.
“It is the driving force initially, but as they [progress], they become self-motivated,” Apgar said.
Shane, a fourth-grader who has been coming to the Learning Club for several years, said he likes the Learning Club better than school because at school there is “too much talking and too much fighting at recess,” he said.
He only has 55 points now, but he said, “I want 1,000.”
Each program serves 28 students. All five sites — Redeemer Lutheran Church, Warren AME Church, Imani Learning Academy, Monroe Street United Methodist Church and the Zablocki Senior Center — donate the space for sessions held two nights a week.
“It’s a beautiful story of all these faith communities working together,” Apgar said. “They all work together to serve kids in the community.”
Each program has state-licensed teachers, education majors from the University of Toledo and student tutors to monitor and help. They try to have a 1-3 teacher/student ratio.
“So many diverse people coming together through one purpose — helping children succeed,” Apgar said.
The Learning Club uses an individualized approach, starting with a skills assessment so that students are given books to work at their own level. The books are numbered, but the numbers do not coincide with grade levels so students do not know what grade level their book represents.
This method lets students feel proud knowing that they have mastered their book and can move on to the next one, without worrying about what books their peers are on. Since each student works independently, each can work at his or her own pace.
“It starts changing your attitude about yourself,” Apgar said. “It builds confidence.”
Even though most children who come have some behavioral problems, Apgar said, the problems work themselves out as the children continue with the program.
“We stress attitude a lot,” she said. “That’s why they are greeted at the door. That sets a tone of ‘Hi, I’m happy to see you. We’re a team.’ It’s a very supportive program.”
The Learning Club’s goal is to see each child’s aptitude level in math and reading increase at least one grade level.
Last year, students exceeded the organization’s goal. The average grade level increase in math and reading was 1.25.
Through constant repetition of material, one fourth-grade student who came in at a pre-kindergarten level has now moved beyond her grade level, Apgar said.
“There’s nothing better than to see a child get out of their book,” Apgar said. It’s exciting to tell them “throw it out. You don’t need it anymore!”
One-third of funding for the program comes from United Way and the other two-thirds from foundations, corporations and individuals, or, as Apgar said, “wherever I can find a way of figuring out where it will come from.”
The Zablocki Senior Center program is funded separately through the Mental Health Recovery Services Board because many of the children there use its services.
About one-third of students come back to the Learning Club after their first year. Many times, once parents see what it has done for their child, they want to continue seeing that growth. Plus, if students come early, they can receive homework help.
“Parents really value this service,” Apgar said.
As the end of the school year nears inside the Zablocki Senior Center, it’s difficult to believe that some students there have severe neurological and emotional issues. It’s a calm room where teachers play classical music; students sit at tables doing their work without talking to one another and patiently raise their hand when they need help.
One is an autistic second-grader who once needed constant attention. Another young student used to be so afraid that he would hide underneath tables. Now, both sit and work independently and quietly.
“It takes this whole little room of nurturers to make them feel comfortable,” Apgar said.