A good friend

Joan Pennington has never been one to sit around twiddling her thumbs.

She was the first female chemist at the E.I. DuPont de Nemours explosives plant in Birmingham, Ala. She worked for 28 years for Dow Chemical Co. in various research positions in Texas and Louisiana. During her years of work as a chemist, Pennington and her husband, Don, also a retired chemist, raised three children. In their spare time, they did parent volunteer work — Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Sunday school teachers, Methodist Youth Fellowship counselors, room mother, Little League coach and team mother. When she retired from Dow in 1990 as a senior research manager, Joan Pennington had 50 people working for her.

Within a year of her retirement, Pennington was working again, this time as a volunteer.

“I was always interested in literacy and started volunteering with VIPS (Volunteers in Public Schools) as an adult literacy tutor for the East Baton Rouge Adult Education Program,” she said. “I did that for 16 years, but somewhere along the way, I thought that I ought to work on the front end of this. I saw how devastating it was that kids couldn’t read.”

In 2004, while she was still doing the adult tutoring, she started working at Magnolia Woods Elementary School as a Reading Friend in the VIPS Everybody Reads program. In 2005, she became the Magnolia Woods team leader for Everybody Reads and the Math Friends program, Everybody Counts.

Almost every school day, Pennington is at Magnolia Woods acting as liaison between the school and VIPS and between the school and volunteers, recruiting and training new Reading and Math Friends and providing ongoing support to the volunteers. She has also worked with about 28 children as a Reading or Math Friend. “In recent years, I have worked mostly with kindergartners who enter school unprepared,” she said.

Children at Magnolia Woods mainly come from the Gardere Lane and Mayfair areas. About 13 percent of the students are having to learn English. Two percent are mainly white or Asian, and the remaining are African American, said Donna Wallette, who has served 12 years as principal of Magnolia Woods. Because the students come from mainly rental areas, the school has about a 50 percent mobility rate. Many are from single-parent families. Ninety-five percent are on free or reduced lunch. “They have a lot of burdens to overcome to be successful,” Pennington said.

The tutors work one-on-one with kindergarten through third-grade students in 30-minute weekly sessions. They help the kindergartners develop pre-reading skills — learning their letters, sounds and numbers and eventually recognizing a few words by sight. “Many of the kids come in and start kindergarten so far behind,” Pennington said. “We tutor kindergartners to try to boost them up.”

With the first-, second- and third-grade students, the tutors work on reading fluency, comprehension and vocabulary building. “If they are not reading pretty well by third grade, they will eventually fall behind,” she said.

Pennington oversees about 70 reading tutors and eight math tutors. About a third of the tutors are from First United Methodist Church, which partners with Magnolia Woods and Bernard Terrace. St. John’s United Methodist Church and Highland Presbyterian Church also provide tutors and contribute to the school financially and in other ways.

“We also have LSU students who tutor math and some LSU Honors students who are tutoring our English second language kids,” Pennington said. The tutors use provided materials as well as books they have accumulated over the years.

“Reading and Math Friends wear two hats,” Pennington said. “One is as a nonjudgmental adult friend who cares enough about a child to come regularly, once a week, to be a friend to him and secondly as a reading and math tutor to help build those reading and math skills.”

The teachers and principal tell Pennington that the tutors are making a difference with the children and that they can see improvement in their reading skills, but the tutors are always hoping for more. “Our kids don’t read for fun,” Pennington said. “They consider it a chore that they have to do for school. If we can get a child where they enjoy reading and are reading fluently enough, it’s a lifetime gift, but we don’t often make it.”

Don Pennington also worked at Dow and later as director of intellectual properties at LSU. He is a Reading Friend as well as the school’s volunteer handyman. “This is a whole school of women,” Joan Pennington said. “There are broken hinges on cabinets, and shelves need building. He single-handedly installed more than 850 bookbag hooks to keep book bags off the classroom floors. The teachers and kids love him.”

The Penningtons enjoy volunteering together. For 12 years while Joan Pennington was doing adult literacy tutoring, Don Pennington volunteered as a board member and chairman for Employment Development Services, which finds jobs for handicapped workers across the state. “One of the things Don and I enjoy about our volunteering at Magnolia Woods is that it is a common interest, and we can do it together,” she said.

Claudette Powell, a retired teacher from North Louisiana, is a first-year Reading Friend to a kindergarten student who is learning English. “We love getting teachers,” Joan Pennington said.

Frances Falcon, who is in her fifth year as a volunteer, uses letter blocks to work with Breanna Scott, 5. “She knows her letters and can go through the sounds using the building blocks,” Falcon said. “We are doing the groundwork for reading.”

The VIPS and First Methodist volunteers provide many other support services to the school. The Methodist Women redecorated the teachers’ lounge. The volunteers provide refreshments for meetings and events. They assist the librarian with two book fairs during the year. They often serve as monitors during testing. They host teacher appreciation breakfasts and lunches, assist with landscaping at the school, provide financial assistance, get Christmas gifts for school-selected children and provide many other helpful services.

Wallette is grateful for her volunteers. “My gosh,” she said. “Those are the ones that walk on water. They do such a service to the children. They are our cheerleaders, someone on our side walking in our shoes. Someone to lift us up.’

The job can be extremely rewarding for the volunteers. “Just seeing a child improve is tremendously satisfying. To see them begin to read, to see their little eyes light up, it’s wonderful,” Pennington said. “The need is so great.”