Lanier Elementary School is a tiny public school located about 20 minutes down Highway 411. The way to the school is familiar for many Maryville residents. The route takes you past the Walmart and William Blount High School, but beyond that it is almost like entering a completely different world. The roads surrounding Lanier Elementary are small, bumpy, and windy. The houses? Tiny and nondescript. They are owned by people who have worked as loggers in the area for generations. Their children are silly, playful kids, and some of them dream of lives beyond the logging industry.
Unfortunately, educational barriers beyond the kids’ control often dash those dreams. In the literacy section of their TCAPS last year, 67 percent of students at Lanier Elementary scored ”basic” or “below basic” indicating that more than half of the school’s students are illiterate. This is the situation that Sarah Husi, a Maryville College junior, walked into on her first day as a volunteer at Lanier Elementary last year.
When Husi started attending Maryville College as a transfer student last fall, she was determined to plug in to MC and the surrounded community. She laughingly admitted that her options were volunteering or spending the time watching Netflix. She chose to volunteer at a place that would become her “baby” and “the most exciting part of [her] life.”
As an education major who hopes to teach elementary school after graduation, Lanier was an easy choice for Husi’s volunteer site. She said that the hardest part has been reconciling Lanier’s situation with her own elementary school experience. The first thing she noticed was how low parent involvement was in the school.
“Moms [at my old school] use to fight over jobs to do…but when I got to Lanier I barely ever saw parents,” said Husi.
Currently there are only three parent volunteers at Lanier, and two of them work almost like full-time employees. Husi sees this as the foundation of Lanier’s literacy problems. Likewise, Husi firmly believes that by improving literacy, these families can also improve their quality of life. She emphasizes the importance of reading.
“Sure, it’s a subject in school, but really it’s the foundation for life,” said Husi.
Seeing these needs, Husi and the administrative staff at Lanier chose to take action. What started as simple tutoring quickly turned into a big career opportunity. Now Husi is in charge of developing an after school program for the school, a responsibility which is given to few undergraduate education majors.
Husi’s goals are lofty. She wants to integrate parents into the classroom while also encouraging her students to read. This year Husi has started the LIFT (Let’s Inspire Families Together) program. The program meets on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and offers a free meal to the 10 families that participate.
For the first 30 minutes of the program, the families, their children, and the volunteers share this meal together. The time provides not only food to the community, but also valuable bonding time that otherwise would not exist.
After dinner, the parents and students split into two groups. Husi lectures the parent groups on homework techniques so they can better help their kids at home, and volunteer tutors give the kids instruction in reading. The parental instruction aspect is a key part of the program Husi said, because one of the first steps to getting parents more involved is to educate them on how to help their children. After the lessons, Husi gathers everyone back together for a fun activity that reinforces what the parents learned.
“That’s the most exciting part for me because it’s family time,” said Husi.
She described the shrieks of laughter from the kids as they watched their parents play silly games, and talked about how that might be the only time each week that these kids get to spend time having fun with their admittedly overworked parents.
Although Husi has the program currently up and running, she is still looking for volunteers to help tutor the students. Maryville College students who are interested in serving at Lanier should contact Husi at [email protected].