For 23 years, Elaine Belk helped at-risk students at Brownstown Elementary School through School to Home Connection.
Students may be considered at-risk because they struggle academically or socially, have a less-than-desirable home life or quietly go unnoticed and slip through the cracks.
Twice a week during their study hall periods, high school students visited the elementary to tutor kids who needed extra help or attention. That was made available through a grant from the Indiana Children’s Trust Fund.
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In 2006, though, Belk was assigned to teach Reading Recovery half of the day, so School to Home Connection was cut in half, too. With funding only being covered by the school corporation, the high-schoolers were replaced with nearly 15 adults from the community.
The Lunch Buddy program was added in 2010, pairing adults with elementary students at lunchtime.
Then three years ago, Belk began teaching Title 1 remedial reading full time for kindergartners and first-graders, so her School to Home Connection time was limited. Fortunately, the community helpers worked well with the teachers and didn’t need much guidance.
With Belk, 66, retiring at the end of the school year, she said Principal Chrystal Street is hopeful someone will continue them.
“I’ve asked teachers to please use our volunteers by contacting tutors themselves, and I’ve asked the lunch buddies who have existing relationships with littles to contact their students’ teachers in August to let them know they’ll be continuing to come for lunch each month,” Belk said.
“As important as extra one-on-one tutoring is, I think the Lunch Buddy part of the program is probably the most important facet to keep going,” she said. “Kids spend an enormous amount of time on electronic devices, as do parents. Yet, kids need someone to talk to whom they know they can trust, share thoughts and ideas with, someone who truly likes them and cares about them, someone who’s willing to take the time.”
Belk is a native of Pinckneyville, Illinois. She graduated from high school there in 1970, and then went to St. Paul’s College in Concordia, Missouri, and then Concordia Teachers College (now Concordia University) in River Forest, Illinois, receiving her Bachelor of Arts in 1974.
That year, she accepted her first teaching position at Immanuel Lutheran School in Seymour, where she taught second grade for three years.
After marrying Pastor Jack Belk in 1977, she taught kindergarten in Medora for a little more than a year before moving to Iowa, where her husband accepted a call to a congregation in Fort Dodge.
They lived there for six years, and all three of their children — Phillip, Lindsay and David — were born there.
In 1984, Jack accepted a call to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Brownstown, so they moved back to Indiana. Elaine was a stay-at-home mom until their youngest child was in second grade.
“During that time, I took classes to regain my Indiana teacher’s license,” Elaine said. “Then I began substitute teaching at Brownstown schools.”
During the 1995-96 school year, then-Brownstown Elementary School counselor Terrye Davidson initiated the School to Home Connection program and asked Elaine to be the coordinator.
“The School to Home Connection program worked at connecting our school, our students’ families and our community, offering support, encouragement and advocacy to our at-risk families,” Elaine said.
She said it gave her an opportunity to befriend students.
“As a classroom teacher, one must deal with grades, required curriculum, behavior problems, tests, more tests,” she said. “I was able to be a friend to the kids — an awesome blessing.”
She said kids liked coming into her room and having someone to talk to, and she loved listening.
“I also told them what I thought without much sugarcoating, and they were OK with someone being honest and taking the time to care,” she said.
She reviewed and helped with homework and spelling quizzes, ran math contests, taught a few counted cross-stitch classes during rainy day recesses, gave stickers on individual charts for good grades and organized reward trips.
“I wrote notes to kids for anything and everything — every holiday and birthday, before big tests, after report cards, ‘Way to go’ or ‘Keep trying’ types of notes after any special achievement,” she said. “I’d check grades and send encouragement ‘You can do it’ or ‘You can do better’ notes. One mom told me years ago that she helped her daughter keep a scrapbook of all the notes I had sent.”
They also had two family nights each year with a variety of games, crafts and entertainment, bowling and rollerskating parties and trips to museums and college campuses.
“We met the families and offered fun things for parents and kids to do together for little or no expense,” she said. “It was all an awesome thing for a school to be able to do, and I was fortunate to be a part of it.”
When School to Home Connection began, nearly 40 high school helpers worked with about 80 elementary students, and there were nearly 40 adult pen pals who exchanged letters twice a month with the older elementary students.
The grant funding stopped after eight years, so Elaine recruited adults from the community to help. Many of them already were involved as pen pals.
Then when the Lunch Buddy program was added, adults got involved in that, too.
This past school year, she had 17 dedicated adults who served as tutors and/or lunch buddies.
“Sometimes, it has been eye-opening for our adults. Sometimes challenging, often joyous,” Elaine said. “We have seldom had community volunteers quit. We have lost them to jobs, moves, illness or physical issues and death. Many have been retirees. All have been lovers of children.”
Elaine also liked being a Reading Recovery teacher. The one-on-one reading program involves trained teachers working with struggling first-graders.
“It is truly amazing to assist in turning a nonreader into a confident, excited, fluent reader,” she said. “It may not always happen that way, but there is always growth, and that’s exciting. There were three Reading Recovery teachers, and our percentages of success were always high.”
Remedial reading with small groups of kindergartners and first-graders also was important work, Elaine said.
“Because again, it involves working with students who struggle,” she said. “Reading is essential. Every other subject involves or depends on reading, even math with its problem-solving.”
She read with four or five students in half-hour blocks.
“I personally love to read and loved teaching reading,” she said. “The only downside was with 12 30-minute blocks in the day seeing 40 students, I never really got to know them very well. There wasn’t much time to talk, and I missed the closer relationships I had been able to have in the past.”
For the past six years, Elaine also was involved in the Fourth Grade Magazine Project. That involves all fourth-graders receiving a magazine subscription of their choice delivered to and distributed from school with the idea that each child will have reading material.
Subscriptions are paid for by the Brownstown Exchange Club, Brownstown Lions Club, Tri Kappa and Don and Anne Clodfelter, who were School to Home Connection community helpers and the originators of the project.
More than 100 students have benefited from the project each year.
“Through our parent surveys, many parents have shared that they also learned information by reading the magazines with their children,” Elaine said.
In retirement, she said she will have more time to spend with her family.
“My husband is semiretired, and we have children and three terrific grandkids who live in Indianapolis and Columbus. We also have a son and daughter-in-law in Phoenix and family in Arizona and Illinois,” she said. “My retirement will give us more time to do things we enjoy and spend time with family. In the past, we both worked during the week but then were also never free on weekends. We’ll have a bit more freedom now.”
She said she will miss seeing the kids and staff members at the elementary.
“A school is a very busy, growing, moving, exciting place to work, lots of people doing new, fun and important things all day long,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to be part of that.”
She will continue to give piano lessons, which she has done for nearly 40 years after school, and serve as the secretary at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Medora.
“I plan to catch up on lots of projects that have been put on hold, and I love gardening, reading, sewing, cooking/baking, playing piano, just many things time didn’t permit. I’ve also promised my husband I’ll try not to drive him crazy,” she said. “God has been exceedingly good to me, and I’m grateful for his blessings.”
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Name: Elaine Belk
Hometown: Pinckneyville, Illinois
Education: Pinckneyville Community High School (1970); St. Paul’s College and Concordia Teachers College (Bachelor of Arts, 1974); Olivet Nazarene University (master’s degree, 2009)
Occupation: Recently retired after leading the School to Home Connection program at Brownstown Elementary School for 23 years; she also was a Reading Recovery teacher and a Title 1 remedial reading teacher
Family: Husband, Jack Belk; children, Philip (Jan) Belk, Lindsay (Matt) Johnson and David (Mia) Belk; grandchildren, Kellen, 6, Delaney, 4, Drew, 2, and expecting another one in August