HELPING MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS SUCCEED
May 01, 2012
For many of us, the mere mention of the middle school years invokes memories ranging from the merely awkward to the truly terrible. Wichita, Kan., resident Judith Wencel's own recollections aren't especially favorable. Yet she credits that period as her inspiration to start a volunteer tutoring program for middle school students that has seen its sphere of influence grow tremendously over a span of close to 20 years.
"I think I just had a heart for middle schoolers because of my own less-than-lovely middle school experience," she says. Wencel jumped into volunteering when her own children started kindergarten. She focused mostly on classroom tutoring, moving up through the grades alongside her daughters until they reached Coleman Middle School. "Then they went on to high school, but I stayed!" she says now with a laugh.
Wencel convinced Coleman's principal at the time to let her start a small program tutoring struggling students. She invited other Coleman parents to pitch in, then gradually widened her network to include friends, neighborhood businesses, churches, high schools, and other community organizations. The project became so successful that it spread to other schools, and today Success in the Middle — the name of that small program she founded — coordinates 261 volunteers who work with about 879 students at 13 middle schools throughout Wichita. Principals herald the program and say it has significantly raised grade-point averages and attendance while simultaneously creating a behavior turnaround in some of the most challenging tweens and teens.
Helping with homework is a priority, but volunteers also take time to play board games or shoot hoops with the kids. "At this age, they really need affirmation and someone who genuinely cares about them, in addition to their parents and teachers," Wencel says. "They need someone in their lives who's not obligated to them by blood or paycheck. It really helps to have those extra folk around." This line of thinking is supported by data from the Search Institute, a research organization focusing on what helps children succeed, which indicates that when an adolescent has three or more caring non-parent adults in his or her life, the child is more likely to avoid risky behaviors and to thrive.
Interestingly enough, Wencel doesn't have a teaching background, although her own daughters have gone on to develop careers in education. However, she does admit that her favorite thing to do as a child was play teacher. "It didn't matter whether it was stuffed animals or my sisters...anybody who'd let me." She still loves engaging with kids, but these days a good portion of the 40 to 45 hours a week she spends on Success in the Middle is spent recruiting, training, and placing volunteers. Lately, because of budget cuts, she's had to tackle fundraising for the first time to maintain programs in non-Title I schools.
So what keeps Wencel in the game after all these years? One is the relationships she's developed with volunteers. "As you can imagine, the people who choose to tutor or mentor middle schoolers are really cool," she says. "I absolutely adore meeting and greeting them at school. And together, we've certainly seen improvement in a variety of areas with kids." That's the biggest takeaway for this innovative volunteer and leader. "After all, these middle schoolers are our future taxpayers and citizens and employees and parents," Wencel says. "By serving them, I like to think we're improving the future of the community in some small way."
Writer: June Allan Corrigan
Photo: Michael Bankston