Marist senior Madison Wisnewski and first-grader Leslie Griffin stretch out vowel sounds in the Marist courtyard during the Genesis Summer Reading Academy in Eugene. The new program provided instruction to homeless children in kindergarten through fourth grade. (Courtesy Chris Miller/Marist High School)
Marist senior Madison Wisnewski and first-grader Leslie Griffin stretch out vowel sounds in the Marist courtyard during the Genesis Summer Reading Academy in Eugene. The new program provided instruction to homeless children in kindergarten through fourth grade. (Courtesy Chris Miller/Marist High School)

EUGENE — The drowsy cadence of “Goodnight Moon,” the drama of “Narnia,” and the everyday pests and life puzzles captured by Beverly Clearly are beloved chapters of childhood. Letters on a page are also a portal to facts about bugs and planets and the captivating lives of explorers and revolutionaries. Learning of all sorts is unequivocally bound to books and the ability to read.

Bill Ferrari, an English teacher at Marist High School here, knows the joy and value of reading. But a few years ago, he was inspired to help create a program for children whose reading skills and exposure to books often are limited by circumstances beyond their control.

Launched this year, Genesis Summer Reading Academy offered personalized instruction to homeless children in kindergarten through fourth grade. A crew of licensed teachers, teaching fellows and volunteers — including Marist students — provided curriculum recommended by University of Oregon professors. Students came from the Eugene, Bethel and Springfield school districts to attend the six-week free program on the high school campus.

Although Genesis did not incorporate prayer or religious lessons, it was “absolutely guided by our faith,” said Ferrari.

“It fits the mission of the school and the mission of the founder of the Marist Brothers, St. Marcellin Champagnat,” said Suzanne Graf, president of the high school. “Our mission is to be Christ-centered and welcoming, inclusive, and provide an academic environment where students can reach their best potential.”

About two years ago, Ferrari learned that the number of homeless students in Oregon is rising. Figures from the 2016-17 school year indicate a record high for both the number and percentage of homeless enrolled students, according to the state Department of Education.

Not long after, Ferrari came upon research indicating that reading at grade level by third grade is critical to future academic success.

A 2011 study released at the American Educational Research Association convention concluded that students who cannot read at grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19 than children who read proficiently by third grade. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her wealthier, proficient peer.

Ferrari felt that stumbling upon all this information at around the same time might be a nudge from God. “I really had the feeling someone was trying to tell me something,” he said.

The Marist administration supported his vision from the start, as did an array of community groups.

“It felt like the Holy Spirit was saying we should do this,” said Graf, echoing Ferrari.

Foundations provided a solid financial base for the academy. Two professors at the University of Oregon College of Education developed a research-based curriculum focused on repetition and phonetics. FOOD for Lane County supplied breakfast and lunch for students, and Catholic Community Services helped identify families who could benefit from the program, distributed materials and registered kids. McKinney-Vento liaisons in the local school districts also helped identify eligible students. McKinney-Vento is a federal law ensuring enrollment and educational stability for homeless children.

The Eugene School District stepped in to provide bus drivers to transport students to Genesis. Fulfilling a humble yet crucial role, Father David Cullings, a beloved former Marist chaplain, was academy custodian.

Genesis is the only program of its kind in the region, according to Ferrari. Although one local school district offers a reading-based program for some Title 1 kids, it’s not as long and has fewer resources. (Title 1 is the portion of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that addresses schools with high poverty levels.)

With 37 students enrolled and about 30 attending the academy daily, the teacher-student ratio was approximately 2 to 1.

Ferrari turned to stand-out Marist graduates to help lead Genesis. Marie Vandecoevering, now a middle school math teacher at Holy Cross School in North Portland, was eager to assist.

Vandecoevering stayed with her parents in Eugene during the week to serve as academy director.

She admitted that teaching reading in English, packed with spelling rule contradictions and conundrums, is tough.

“In one story about a frog and metamorphosis, for example, you’re trying to explain why the ‘ph’ sounds like an ‘f’. In math, a 7 is always a 7,” she said, laughing.

Ferrari said students were “incredibly sweet and eager to learn.”

“They came from very challenging circumstances yet still showed up to school with smiles on their faces. They wanted to interact and wanted to be good students.”

Teaching intern Kaitlyn Witschger, a Marist grad who’s now a University of Denver senior, recalled how after teaching students a rhyming game to help them remember tricky spellings, one day they ran up to her saying, “Ms. W, Ms. W! We found new words that rhyme!”

“I’ve worked with a lot of kids at church and elsewhere, but this group seemed especially excited to learn,” said Witschger.

Given the demographic, organizers knew there would be hurdles throughout the summer. A couple kids stopped showing up for unknown reasons and their parents did not respond to phone calls. One child who lived in a shelter would break down in tears over something seemingly small.

Vandecoevering recalled boys comparing how long their dads were in jail, while two brothers counted down the days until the academy was over; their father was to be released the day after it ended.

“We definitely had tragic situations,” acknowledged Ferrari. But ultimately there were approximately 30 parents who made sure their children got on the bus every day and were ready to learn, he said. “It was inspiring to know that within these difficult situations so many parents were trying to make a conscious effort to prioritize their child’s education.”

Michelle Puls, a single mother of two boys who works full time as a nursing aide, is one of those parents. She learned of the academy while making a regular trip to the food pantry run by Catholic Community Services of Lane Country.

Puls, a native of the Philippines, said her 7-year-old and 10-year-old had “a wonderful time,” and she plans to enroll them again next year.

“Reading is so useful in everyday life in so many ways,” said Puls. “I hope that reading and learning helps them to be what they want to be in the future, to achieve their dreams.”

Along with academic instruction, activities promoted a love of reading and reinforced “that when you are good at reading, the whole world opens up to you,” said Ferrari.

There was a trip to the University of Oregon Law School and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

This month Ferrari, Graf and others are meeting to debrief and plan for next year. They want the program to one day serve as a model for other communities.

“The numbers are staggering in terms of how many homeless children are in our state,” said Ferrari. “This is not a problem that’s going away any time soon.”

Ferrari hopes this year’s participants went back to school with an academic boost and “the idea that they can be confident readers, can be good students,” he said.

“And I hope they have a sense that they live in a community that cares about them, that values them individually. I hope they walk out of here feeling that they are loved.”

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