'Study Buddies' tutoring helps more local kids learn

Study Buddies is an after-school tutoring program and homework clinic based at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Sherrills Ford.

Its founder, Brenda Morgan-Goble, started the program to create a family-like atmosphere in which kids can get academic support.

The program serves students from Sherrills Ford and Balls Creek elementary schools and Mill Creek Middle School. School buses bring the kids to the church, where they have a few minutes to unwind and eat a warm meal before getting to work.

They spend the next hour and a half working on school assignments or practicing specific skills. They are divided into smaller classes based on age and, unlike typical after-school programs, are led by certified teachers.

In 2009, Dr. Stephen Pickard, a recently retired elementary school teacher and administrator, took over as director for Study Buddies. Although the format of the program is appealing to many families, it wasn't well-known, and attendance had dropped to only 12 students.

"I didn't think it was going to make it, because our scholarship runs out this year," Pickard said, referring to the $30,000 grant from the Duke Endowment that helped launch Study Buddies.

The program has received funding from the church; otherwise, the $60-per-week student tuition is its main source of income.

But Pickard was determined to keep Study Buddies up and running. To increase awareness of the program, Pickard spoke at PTA meetings and at the local Rotary Club. He's also worked to develop relationships within the community. The fire department has presented a safety program to the kids, and the Rotary Club donated a dozen laptop computers. One Rotary member is now a regular volunteer at Study Buddies.

These days, with enrollment approaching 50 students, Pickard's biggest problem is finding classroom space to accommodate the program's growth.

"The key thing that makes this program go is that we care," he said. Staff members have visited students' homes, sent sympathy cards to grieving families and even played the role of counselor to kids who need someone to talk to. At Christmas, the staff bought gifts for a local family in need of assistance.

This caring approach has paid off. Last grading period, 28 students made the A/B Honor Roll. Some had never earned that distinction before.

Parents praise the program not only because participants have had academic success, but also because the structured homework time at Study Buddies means the kids have evenings free to spend time with their families. That was one of the founder's original goals.

"The kids come in with their agendas," Pickard said. "They use that as a road map to get all their academics done before their parents pick them up."

If no assignments are listed in the students' agendas, teachers can check classroom websites for assignments or use computer software to practice skills in areas such as math or phonics. The small class sizes allow teachers to work closely with each student.

As a reward for their hard work, the kids enjoy "Fun Fridays." Once homework is done, they can play games, work on craft projects or use tickets they've earned throughout the week to "shop" for prizes.

Although the program is enjoying success, Pickard said, he would like to increase the level of parent involvement and communication with the local schools. He'd also like to see 100 kids enrolled in Study Buddies within the next two years.

"My goal is to see that every child that needs help can find it," he said.