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Church members help kids on trail to success

The Trail to Success program will be having a fundraiser on Sunday, Nov. 5, at 4 p.m. at Charlie’s on Main in Oregon to support the program for this school year. You can get more information here.

When Andrea Herrera started working as a social worker at Chavez Elementary School on Madison’s southwest side, it did not take her long to notice that one group of students was geographically and economically isolated from the school.

When Redeemer City Church started holding Sunday worship services at Chavez and looking at ways to serve the school, it did not take long for church leaders to notice the same thing.

Some 100 students from the school lived five miles away in the High Ridge Trail area of Fitchburg. They were predominantly low-income students, their parents lived too far away to be active at the school and the students could not participate in after-school activities.

Casey Johnson

Casey Johnson, one of the co-pastors at Redeemer City, said, “If we were going to help make this a better city to live for all people we felt like this was a great place to start. It began by a few members of our Church moving into the Pines Apartments and building community through loving their neighbors.”

Herrera, meanwhile, began to look at ways the school could reach out to students she saw isolated from the life of the school.

“It did not take long for me to realize the stark difference between families residing in the Chavez neighborhood (mostly affluent families with means to navigate the school system and access to resources that were necessary) and those who were bussed in from High Ridge Trail (over 80% living below poverty level, over 60% learning English as their second language, racial & ethnic disparities),” Herrera explained. “The students and families that needed our support most, were those who were furthest away and least able to come to us.”

Andrea Herrera and friend

As it turned out, Herrera was also a member at Redeemer City. Soon she and Johnson and Joining Forces for Families social worker Emily Thibedeau in the Leopold neighborhood began laying the groundwork for the program that would become Trail to Success. But it took a long climb over many obstacles across a few years.

Redeemer City tried offering after-school programs, but there was not enough space. They tried getting more space in the apartment complex, but that was not possible. Then the collaboration of Chavez, Redeemer City and JFF began applying for grants. They got enough money to launch the program in the fall of 2016, but now they are climbing another financial mountain trying to sustain it into 2017-18. Hence the fundraiser on Nov. 5.

In the first year of the program, there were three generous grants to get it off the ground – $17,500 from the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, $10,000 from the Madison Christian Giving Fund and $8,000 from Crosspointe Church in Florida, where Casey had some connections. They later received additional funding from the Technology Education Foundation (via Berbee Derby) and the Alliant Energy Community Grant.  (You can see a video that the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools did on the program last spring.)

The results in the first year were impressive.

Here’s how Herrera explained it:
* “75% of students who participated in T2S afterschool met their literacy growth goal, compared to only 59% of the overall population of Chavez and 57% of their like peers who also live in the High Ridge Trail neighborhood but did not participate in the program.
* “83% of students who participated in T2S afterschool met their math growth goal, compared to 72% of the overall population of Chavez and 67% of their like peers who also live in the neighborhood, but did not participate in the program.
* “The Madison school district considers 60% of students meeting their growth goal ‘good,’ 70% is ‘great’ and 80% is ‘WOWZER!’ ”

Leave aside the numbers and Herrera put it this way: “Our students who participated knocked it out of the park!  This is gap-closing work!!!”

This year, the program launched on Oct. 24 and will run every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon through the rest of the school year.  A consistent group of 24 students have been selected by lottery to participate out of the 44 students who applied. They range from kindergarten to fifth grade.  There are four staff members (2 teacher leaders and 2 aids) who work with the students, teaching them additional math, literacy and enrichment skills and activities.

Through the generosity of David Gevers and EJ Plesko & Associates, Trail to Success is able to use building space at The Pines for free.  But there are still salaries for the staff and that is the bulk of the $22,000 budget for this school year – and the focus on the fundraiser on Nov. 5.

For both Johnson and Herrera, this is more than an education project. Johnson says that “Even as a newer church in the area, Redeemer City desired early on to establish relationships within our community where we could serve, particularly among kids in under-resourced neighborhoods.” In addition to its work with the Chavez students at High Ridge Trail, it has also adopted Huegel Elementary School on the west side. Church members help out with family empowerment and family enrichment events at High Ridge Trail.

Herrera, meanwhile, sees her work in the schools as very much motivated by her faith. “One of my life verses that I hold true and dear is Isaiah 58:9-11, she said. Here’s what that verse says: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you always…”

Before getting her master’s degree in social work and getting hired at Chavez, Herrera worked in a ministry that supported families who were experiencing homelessness. “It was during that time that I sensed the Lord leading me to pursue my Master’s so that I could be a light on the inside of the public school system,” she explained.

A bit of that light is shining on High Ridge Trail for yet another year.