John Freeland, pastor at Skyland United Methodist Church in Brookhaven, tutors youngsters at Ashford Park Elementary in reading.

“Zot” is not a word, John Freeland sadly informed Juan, a kindergartener at Ashford Park Elementary School, who had enthusiastically drawn the letter “Z” onto his white board.

But put an “H” in front of that “OT”? Definitely a word, Freeland said.

Freeland, the pastor of Skyland United Methodist Church in Brookhaven, is among a group of people from the church who volunteer once a week to help students at Ashford Park Elementary School with their reading skills.

“I try to find a creative way to work with them and help them learn new words,” Freeland said.

Ashford Park Principal LaShawn McMillan said if a child cannot read by the third grade, it’s an indicator for poor future academic performance.

“Reading is critical. You have to be able to read to be able to do well in all the other subjects,” McMillan said.

So when Freeland asked what his church could do to support the school, McMillan came up with a plan to give students who are having trouble the one-on-one support their teachers don’t always have time to provide.

“In a number of classes, we found we have a number of kids that really struggle with reading,” McMillan said.

The volunteers help students in kindergarten through second grade who have been recommended by their teachers.

“It’s not just reading. It could be pre-reading, letter recognition, phonics, knowing the sounds of the letters, and getting them ready for reading,” McMillan said.

Freeland said the majority of the students he works with speak Spanish at home. He said their parents may not have the English skills necessary to help them with their reading.

“For them, if they have an older brother or sister, their English skills are much better,” Freeland said. “They go home and it’s a Spanish world.”

McMillan said the school would love to have more volunteers. She said anyone who is interested can contact the school to set up a plan.

“One of the requirements is, we’re looking for someone who can be committed to coming and working with our students,” McMillan said. “If you’re going to do it, we really want you to come in and do it.”

Freeland said since the beginning of the school year, he’s been going to the school once a week. He tutors for about 30 minutes each visit.

“It’s one of the highlights of my week,” Freeland said. “It’s nice to go sit down with the kids who are always loving toward me, and happy to see me walk in the door. It’s such a joy for them that I can’t help but enjoy it.”