MARYSVILLE — At one cluster of tables in the church basement, Mike Wray is guiding a handful of kids through basic addition and subtraction problems.
In another part of the room, Candice Ferguson reads to a small circle of kids from a picture book. More kids work on an art project in another room.
Rev. Terry Kyllo, the pastor at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, oversees the room.
It’s a small gathering of 13 kids and almost as many adult volunteers, but its the root of what Kyllo hopes will catch on elsewhere: summer school.
“This is not vacation Bible school. There’s enough of those going on, and I’m kind of bored with vacation Bible school,” Kyllo said. “But we are committed to our mission of working on poverty.”
The genesis of the program came about three years ago when Kyllo heard the Marysville School District had no money for a summer school program.
He and others in the church talked about it. One member, who is a teacher, cited statistics that poorer children tend to lose a grade level of reading and math over the course of a summer, and that students who don’t read at grade level by the end of the third grade have a greater chance of being incarcerated later in life.
“Everyone sat up straight when they heard this,” Kyllo said.
The church partnered with the school district to set up a curriculum, and by July, 13 kids were in the parish hall reading and working on math.
They kept the program running, and it’s now in its third year.
It’s still small: 14 incoming first- and second-graders. They meet for two weeks, each offering four days of instruction. And the program is designed primarily to maintain the kids’ learning, provide them with meals, and help students build confidence and social skills.
And it’s all free. St. Philip’s funded the program with a $4,000 grant from the Tulalip Tribes. The grant also provides money for the church’s weekend feeding program at Liberty Elementary School and a homework club at Pinewood Elementary School.
The agenda for this summer’s school is math, reading and Spanish. Students also get music and art on alternate days. Breakfast, a snack and lunch are provided, and at the end of the day, the kids can take part in low-key and optional chapel experience, Kyllo said.
In the reading unit, Candice Ferguson, a retired elementary school teacher from Snohomish, leads the kids through several exercises designed to test their vocabulary, read books together and practice visualization exercises that help the kids express themselves.
When it comes time to read a book on fireflies, the kids chime in with learned vocabulary and other cues.
“A firefly is a …,” Ferguson began.
“Beetle!” the kids called out.
“He flies in the night and flashes his light,” Ferguson continued.
“Blink blink!” Atabey Lopez chimed in.
For the last session of the day, Aletha Tatge gathered the kids for an art lesson.
She told the kids that the day’s exercise would be to paint a coconut tree. First she guided the kids in a breathing exercise to help them relax and get into the zone.
“When you take a brush, take a breath and when you apply that brush to canvas, let it go. What does breathing do for you?” Tatge said.
“It makes you calm and feel good about yourself,” Tylynne Smith offered.
Tatge, a former Navy officer, commanded the kids’ attention.
“Paintbrushes down, eyes on me — thank you — and I’ll demonstrate,” Tatge said, and she showed the kids how to wet their brushes, dilute the watercolors, and begin applying the paint to paper.
She worked the room and offered guidance to each of the kids: “Put some more water on yours.” “Breathe in.” “Oh, you’re making waves, good!”
When she noticed Tylynne’s tree wasn’t coming out right, she turned it into a teachable moment.
“Tylynne is going through a phase of art we call ‘frustration.’ You’re not happy with yours, are you?” she said. Tylynne shook her head.
To everyone, she added: “This is called the ugly phase of your picture, because no one knows what’s going to happen.”
During snack and meal breaks, volunteers sit and eat with the kids, and Kyllo does a bit of “stand-up” to keep them engaged: Animal noises first, singing voices later.
Even the stand-up has a goal: the kids’ confidence grows during the school sessions, and many of them showcase their own talents to the other kids, Kyllo said.
He said he would like to expand the length and breadth of the school, and said some churches up in Skagit County now offer a full summer school. He hopes the idea catches on in Snohomish County.
“Our hope is to see some of these other churches do some of the same stuff,” he said.