In November of 2018, Gwen’s friend posted a video on Facebook, describing the success of Oak Pointe Church volunteers mentoring students at Mann Elementary in Detroit.
It grabbed Gwen’s heart and brought her to tears. As she began to gather information about SOAR, she found another video. This one convicted her heart and she clearly heard God speak to her, "I want you to do this in Jackson." She didn't argue with him or question him. She just began.
During the research of the reading statistics for Jackson County, Gwen was appalled at the low scores indicating less than 50% of the third graders in Jackson were able to read at the state-mandated grade level. She wept at these results and a passion for doing something about it became her driving force.
Gwen checked with her friend Cheryl, who is the community group coordinator for her church in Jackson, Radiant Jackson. She encouraged Gwen and said it would make a wonderful "Go" community group and to discuss with Pastor Mike Popenhagen.
Gwen emailed Pastor Mike and he excitedly encouraged her to begin and supported her with prayer.
Having only lived here since July of 2017, Gwen really didn't know anyone in the school system in Jackson. So, she reached out to her friend Mike England. After she explained explain Soar to him and what God had asked her to do, Mike suggested she begin at Paragon Charter Academy, where a lot of children who live downtown attend (Gwen originally thought she was supposed to do Soar at a school close to downtown Jackson). She wasn't sure, so she said she would pray about it and they would meet again after the holidays. In the interim, Gwen reached out to the Soar Detroit people to make sure that she had their blessing to begin their program here in Jackson and made arrangements to meet with them after the first of the year. They mailed her the folder that they use with all students and gave her a very brief explanation of how it was used.
Gwen received a call from Mike shortly after the New Year saying that the principal at Paragon, Mr. Ben Kriesch, would like to meet with her to discuss the possibility of doing Soar at his school.
During that initial January meeting Gwen quickly learned she didn't have to sell the program to him, but rather he was explaining to her how beneficial it would be to his school. As he was giving her a tour of the school they learned they had both attended Croswell-Lexington High School and that his father had done his very first church charge at Lexington United Methodist Church where Gwen had attended as a young girl until 1967 when she moved to a different school district. He turned to Gwen and said, “how's that for confirmation?”
It took from that meeting in January until mid-March for Gwen and the Paragon reading specialists to meet with the Soar Detroit's Kisha Martin for more in-depth training on how exactly this works. In addition to scheduling conflicts, Satan tried to delay them with a blizzard, a freeway flooding, an overheated boiler in the school they were supposed to meet at, a high wind warning, and illnesses here and there.
Finally, the day arrived when they traveled to Mann Elementary for their training. Watching Paragon’s reading specialist understand exactly how the folder works to benefit each individual student was truly like watching a young girl in a candy store. They agreed to begin the pilot as soon as they were able to put folders together for their most struggling second graders.
Soar Jackson started at Paragon Charter Academy on Tuesday, April 16th with Gwen and 4 students. By May 7th, six mentors had the total number of students up to 12! We mentored for over 160 hours during the pilot!
In May, our second graders were retested on their WPM (word per minute) comprehension. The first testing was done in October of 2018. The results of our 12 students for both tests, and their improvement was remarkable; the 2 lowest readers improved by 132% and 84%, the 2 highest by 10% and 11%! We know this growth was a combined effort of Soar mentoring and interventions through Paragons' additional support throughout the student's day.
Our vision statement is to see all students in Jackson and the surrounding areas reading with confidence and proficiency by the end of 3rd grade, providing them hope, and a greater opportunity to thrive. The mission is to provide each student with one on one mentoring using an individualized learning plan prepared by a professional education specialist. Each plan is monitored and adjusted as the student progresses.
We are excited to see what God brings forth and how he grows Soar into other areas.
"They will Soar on wings like eagles" Isaiah 40:31
"Whatever you did for the least of these, you have done for me" Matt 25:40