They come to the “one-room schoolhouse” in ones and twos, the younger children dropped off by school buses, the older ones riding a bus or finding their own transportation, but all bound by a common goal – to learn, to improve, to gain spots in and to graduate from college.
They are the students at Teach My People, about 140 youngsters culled by need and academics from the Waccamaw district of the Georgetown Public Schools.
Teach My People founders and staff didn’t foresee the growth of the program, which started in 1999 as an after-school enrichment program and included a handful of children, explained Eric Spatz, the third director of the nonprofit organization, and one of three full-time paid staff members.
That’s one more full-timer than Vandel Arrington had when he conceived the program after he moved to Pawleys Island from Florence.
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“We started slow,” Arrington recalled. “We began at Baskerville, essentially an Episcopal camp, but when we had to leave there, we decided to develop our own site,”
So they got to work, raised money and in 2004 built what they refer to as the “one-room schoolhouse” on Waverly Road. They moved into the building, which today houses first- through fourth-graders and high school students, in 2005, and by 2006, the building was paid off.
Fiscal responsibility is normal for the faith-based organization, which receives no federal or state money. Teach My People operates on an annual budget of less than $400,000, a large percentage of that coming from Mercom Corporation and the Falk-Griffin Foundation, among corporate donors. The nonprofit also gains major funding from the Palmetto Day of Giving and from a yearly gospel lunch.
Parents who can afford the program also are involved, paying an annual per-child stipend. But if they can’t afford it, their children are not turned away.
In 2007, Teach My People expanded its program to include more youngsters. The program admitted 10 first-graders and has added a class of 10 first-grade students each year. It follows the students through high school graduation and beyond.
“We realized that while we were doing a good job with the students, we were losing track of them when they got to middle school and high school,” said Spatz. “
Students are recommended by the schools based on academic and financial needs. They s start their year in June, although the summer program is more relaxed, and includes sports and other activities, in addition to the academics. There’s a pool on site and swimming classes are a hit.
The students get an orientation about what is expected, said Jess Bower, another of the paid staff members. Her main job is similar to a school principal, and she’s in constant contact with the students’ home schools during the academic year.
During the academic year, youngsters in grades 1-through 4 and high schoolers come daily to the Waverly Road site, where they are often greeted by one of the two cats that live at the school..
“We work closely with the schools,” said Bower, who has been with the program for 10 years. “We are in contact with teachers and administrators to track the students, to see that they are meeting their goals as well as ours.”
The students know about the zero tolerance policy toward bad behavior, but much of the program emphasizes the positives.
The school has individual classrooms for third through fifth grades; the first-graders are separated from second-graders by a sliding divider; a large common area that serves as a dining hall, gym and large meeting room; and the high school students have their own area that includes computers and a lounge.
Middle school students work offsite; Fifth- and sixth-graders go to Pawleys Island Presbyterian Church and seventh- and eighth-graders are housed at Pawleys Island Community Church.
Students start their day with a snack and then buckle down to academics. The early elementary students each has his own journal to follow, and a teacher is there to help. For older students, there is a looser structure, but there is no less an expectation of success.
At 5 p.m., students are fed dinner
Students, staff and volunteers share a love for Teach My People.
DaVaughn Funny is a graduate of the program and will complete his degree in funeral services from Piedmon Tech this year.
“Before I got into Teach My People, I wasn’t focusing on my academics. When I started, I couldn’t write my name,” he said. “But Miss Roz, my teacher, was a jokey woman and made a game of it. I learned,” he said.
He sacrificed some of his social life so he could graduate early from Piedmont Tech. “I had to give up partying with my f5riends,, but it is worth it,” Funny said.
He looks upon Teach My People staff as family. “When I was sick in the hospital, they came to visit me, they believed in me,” he said.
No one stands on ceremony. Spatz is just as likely to sweep the floors as he is to raise funds or fill in in a classroom as he is to do administrative work.
For much of its work, Teach My People relies on volunteers, people like Cecilia Dilworth, who tutors the fifth and sixth graders, something she’s done for the past three years.
“You start out thinking that you’re helping them, but they are helping you,” she said.
Ginny Kunz and her husband of Murrells Inlet organize the kitchen volunteers, making sure that the students get a full dinner daily.
“Mac and cheese is a favorite – the spicier the better,” she said.
Carl Falk, whose Falk-Griffin Foundation is a major funder, tears up when he talks about Teach My People
“Realizing the potential for changing lives, helping young people become all they could be. That was the thought,” he said, explaining his involvement with Teach My People.
“Like all men, I got involved because of my wife,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve been involved since the beginning.”
Stella Mercado, CEO of Mercom Corp., mentors students at Teach My People and each year brings a group to Coastal Carolina University’s Women in Philanthropy program.
. “We live in a pretty wealthy area, but they take care of people who aren’t necessarily wealthy,” she said. “They take care of the whole child, all the way through high school. And they have a good track record. It’s proven successful.”
Another success story is Shaniyah Vereen, a freshman at Waccamaw High School.
“My grades are much better now,” she said. “I study more, even though I don’t like studying.”
She amiles easily and thinks about her words.
“I’ve learned to be a better person all around,” she said.
Senior Charlian Blackstock credits Teach My People with instilling her confidence, as well as for making college an expectation.
“When I first started coming, I was shy. Now I go to different events on behalf of Teach My People, I give speeches It helped me grow to be an empowered woman who can empower others,” Blackstock said.
She plans to attend Coastal Carolina University or Lander University to study speech pathology and English – with an aim toward opening her own clinic in a major city such as New York or Los Angeles. Even she admits it’s a lofty goal for someone who was hesitant to take chances.
“But I’ve learned, I’ve grown,” she said.