Dante Jemison, a fifth-grade student at Elizabeth Scott Elementary School in Chesterfield County, bounded into the Greenleigh Instructional Learning Cottage last week after a grueling day of Standards of Learning testing.
He didn’t have any homework assignments to complete during the hourlong tutoring session on Tuesday afternoon, but that didn’t mean he could goof off or play games. Other youngsters still had schoolwork to finish.
The fifth-grader spent 20 minutes reading from the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” — eagerly waiting for tutor Pegi Spriggs to sign off on his reading when he finished — then assisted 8-year-old Aliaha Wright with her math homework.
“We don’t want you to sit here and play,” said Spriggs, a teacher at Elizabeth Scott and a volunteer at Greenleigh. “As much as we love games — and there is value in the games — we’re after the academics here.”
It was business as usual at the learning cottage, a double-wide trailer that serves as a classroom/community center for academic assistance to elementary and middle school students living in the Greenleigh Mobile Home Park off Jefferson Davis Highway in Chester.
The tutoring program that began last fall in the sprawling 513-lot Greenleigh trailer park was an instant success.
On its first day, nearly 60 students signed up, but because of size limitations, only 15 students can participate in the six-week sessions. In addition to the tutoring, the after-school program includes lessons on soccer and life skills with First Touch Sports.
It was recently recognized by the Virginia School Boards Association in its 17th annual Showcases for Success directory, which highlights successful K-12 programs in Virginia’s public schools.
“It’s all about relationships,” said Joan Temple, principal at Elizabeth Scott. “It’s all about building relationships, and you can just see the confidence level of our kids improving. They’re speaking up more in class and feel more of a connection and a part of it.”
The Greenleigh Instructional Learning Cottage, which became a reality after months of planning, required no tax dollars.
Funds were raised by various organizations, and the trailer was donated by Chesterfield County Public Schools. It was an older trailer that was no longer being used as a classroom by the school division.
“It probably would have been scrapped or taken to a junkyard if we had not used it,” said Bermuda District School Board Member Carrie E. Coyner, whose district includes the Greenleigh community. “I think the use of old trailers from school sites is a creative way to have educational learning cottages throughout our low-socioeconomic communities.”
The learning cottage in Greenleigh began as a vision to increase the English-speaking skills of about 300 Hispanic children who live in the trailer park. But its mission extends beyond helping the youngest members of the community. Adult-education programs focus on teaching English to many of the Hispanic residents in Greenleigh.
Larry Hudson, who manages the mobile-home park, said residents have responded well to the program and described it as uplifting to the community.
On Tuesday afternoon, about 15 elementary school students rushed to the learning cottage, some racing to see who could get to the door first. Once inside, all play was pushed aside, at least for a while. Each student arrives with a binder that includes homework assignments and notes from teachers about any academic areas that need assistance.
The first 20 minutes centered on reading, and then tutors worked with younger students on vocabulary words or math assignments. One student was engrossed in R.L. Stine’s “The Haunted Mask” and didn’t want to be bothered by his friends. When some students finished their homework, they played a quick game of Uno, a popular color-coded card game.
Teal Barber, a 17-year-old senior at Thomas Dale High School, is a regular tutor at Greenleigh. He doesn’t live in the community, but wants to offer his assistance. The best reward, he said, is seeing the improvement the students make on their assignments.
“Now there’s a big difference. They’ve gotten to the point they can do things on their own (and) apply the knowledge that they have learned since the beginning,” said Teal, who wants to attend to the University of Southern California to study marketing or finance with a minor in acting.
Just as the Greenleigh community embraced this program, so too has the larger Chesterfield community. Coyner and Bermuda District Supervisor Dorothy A. Jaeckle worked to bring various partners together to start this program.
Laurie Harro, a former teacher who works in a church day care program, is a regular volunteer tutor in Greenleigh. She loves working with the students and enjoys hearing about their lives.
“It’s awesome to see them make progress,” she said. “I like feeling like I’m helping them learn how to read or to take a step in learning their math skills.”
More than 15 community-based agencies, such as the Chester YMCA, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Bermuda Baptist Church, have joined forces in support of the Greenleigh Instructional Learning Cottage.
“It really is an excellent example of the use of community partnerships to make a meaningful difference for county residents,” said Bill Dupler, Chesterfield’s deputy county administrator for community development. “Everyone pitched in … to make it happen, and now the community is sustaining the effort into the future.”
The success realized at Greenleigh has spread throughout the county. In recent weeks, a similar program was started in the Broadwater community off Harrowgate Road in Chester.
Teal, the Thomas Dale senior who is a dedicated tutor in Greenleigh, said his goal is to make the community better than when he arrived.
“Some people don’t have as much opportunity as others,” Teal said. “You might be letting your opportunity go to waste. You don’t want to have people fall to the wayside when you thrive.”