Janice Dawson-Threat wants to see your child bloom. As the director of Grade A Plus, an academic support and enrichment program formerly known as For His Glory, she has spent the past two decades encouraging Columbia’s children to be curious in and out of the classroom. Her programs have helped students go to college, overcome a fear of swimming, develop the volleyball skills to play on the high school team, learn conversational English and more.
Dawson-Threat is also an associate minister at Second Missionary Baptist Church in Columbia.
You garden in your spare time. Are there lessons from gardening that you also apply to teaching?
We know that attention given to an individual child can produce a bloom. We work on developing particular characteristics, maybe what you might call pollinating. We try to pollinate with encouragement, focus, perseverance and success. The child might have fears — fear of math or science — but we’re not just interested in them learning what the right answer is. We are also interested in them overcoming the fear and understanding that it’s not a barrier. You have the same brain and an equal ability to learn this. You might not learn it in the year that they designate that you learn it, but you can still learn it.
The National Education Association defines the academic achievement gap as the difference in performance between the general student population and underserved or minority students. How have you seen that gap change with the students with whom you wor?
We’ve had students who for several years won the most improved outstanding math award for their grade. We were excited because these were girls. When they started, all you had to do was say “math,” and they’d cry. We were able to help them through the fear and the lack of self-confidence, and then they overcame the barrier.
Once we get them past that fear, they take off like a little baby bird. Once they get that first flight in, they can fly anywhere they want to. So that’s what we’re doing to close the opportunity gap.
How does your experience as an associate minister inform the way you teach?
My ministry experience is what propelled the creation of the program 20 years ago. “I just want to help the children of the church.” And then it grew beyond the church. “I just want to help the children of the community.” And now it’s grown beyond that. This year, we advertised to 25 schools.
It’s our job as adults to assist children in finding joy, to be excited about learning. When I meet a child who doesn’t want to learn anything, I get concerned about what shut that natural curiosity down. So in our new mission statement, we have promoted that we’re here to motivate learning, and to increase the level of curiosity.
How have you adapted to COVID-19?
We’re on the frontline working with these kids, working with these families. We saw that 200 families had food delivered to them throughout the shutdown period. From March to the end of July, we were delivering food as well as tutoring.
Everybody’s doing a lot to make sure these kids are not scarred in such a way that it cuts off their love of learning or love of life.
We really need more people in the community to understand what we do. We’re more than a tutoring program, and we need people to be aware of us. You say Boys and Girls’ Club, and everybody goes “Yup.” But we want people to say, “Grade A Plus, yup.” I just want these kids to know that the sky is not the limit. They can actually go to outer space.