Couple's labor of love helps Moss Point students read

Ken and Sheila Turner own an auto parts store and garage on Chicot Street in Pascagoula. Every Tuesday through Friday at lunch for four years, they do something amazing.

They show up for Tujuanna Likely's second-grade reading class at Moss Point's Kreole Elementary, in a school district that's not even in their city, and spend their lunch hour to listening to, working with and encouraging students to read.

The effect on the children has been more than even the teacher expected.

When they started, the Turners were untrained in how to help readers. Even now, they follow the guidance of Likely, who is trained. But they have learned to improvise when it comes to how to get a child to remember a word.

Sheila Turner had a boy who couldn't remember "wink."

"Look at my eye," she told him, and winked. "Now every time you see that word, think of my eye."

It worked.

Theirs is a commitment to humanity, a way of ensuring a better future instead of worrying about the state of world affairs. It's a way to give love.

If you ask the Turners, they'll say they get more out of it than they put in, a saying that may sound a little overused these days. But for the Turners, it's true.

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He is 62 and she is 60, and he said the mistakes they made with their own children in school can be put to good use in this second-grade class.

"We can see that 'Do this because I said so,' doesn't work," Ken Turner said. "I know -- I tried it on my kids. And sometimes they try it on their kids."

What does work is total encouragement.

With the third-grade "reading gate" looming for all second-graders in the state, the Turners have become a special blessing for Likely's class. School districts all along the Coast are scrambling to focus on reading to meet the new state standards.

Second grade is a crucial year, Likely said. Children need a boost.

For this class -- one small group in one school district in one corner of the Coast -- the boost is Ken and Sheila Turner.

'All we do is read'

On a recent Wednesday, Ken Turner was working hard to get away from the shop. It's actually the hardest part of tutoring.

"If the lady calls about the Toyota starter, tell her I've got it," he shouts back to his wife.

She calls to him, "Don't forget the goody bag," a well-worn bag of 50-cent toys, simple rewards for the kids.

He drives 10 minutes from his shop to the little Moss Point school, checks in at the front desk and heads down the hall, still in his work clothes. He knocks.

"Mr. Turner is here," Likely announces. The children, boys and girls, are out of their chairs and headed to the big guy with powder-white hair and a big voice. They swarm him.

Dorian Johnson is picked to go first.

Without a wasted minute, Ken Turner takes Dorian and they head to the tutoring room. Dorian skips down the long hallway with Turner, bouncing along the way like a helium balloon. Turner has the goody bag and pages of words that Likely want's Dorian to tackle.

In the room is a central table surrounded by equipment and refrigerators.

Nothing matters but the words. And without fanfare, Turner starts in on the first one. Time is short, and they plow through.

There are no computers.

"All we do is read," the Turners said.

There's a no-nonsense chemistry between Ken Turner the mechanic and 7-year-old Dorian.

Dorian's focus is intense. He whispers to himself, "sw" and then "eee" no, "et."

"Sweat," he announces.

"Right," Ken Turner says, then without hesitation points to the next word.

Turner's voice is stern. Even his praise sounds like a call to attention, but Dorian just grins and moves to the next word. For every one, he looks to Turner for confirmation.

"What about the tricky words?" Dorian asks.

"We did 'em. We're almost done," Turner says. "I think we're ready for some new words.

"I don't know who swapped out this child, but this isn't the same Dorian I had last week. He must have been practicing," Turner announces, as if Dorian weren't there.

"I'm the real Dorian," Dorian giggles. "And I'm practicing."

A reporter later asks him if Mr. Turner is fun or tough.

"Kinda tough," Dorian says.

So why do you want to go?

"It's cool."

'Very serious about this'

The Turners alternate days they tutor, so they pass information back and forth to each other about each child's progress. "They come no matter what," Likely said of the couple. "They are very serious about this. I get chill bumps when I talk about how dedicated they are."

Parents report improvement in their children's behavior. Melissa Hollingsworth said her son Jacob talks about the Turners all the time.

"They've come a long way with Jacob this year," Hollingsworth said. "They taught him to slow down."

Likely said the Turners help her even when they aren't there.

"Do you want me to tell Mr. Turner about this?" she asks a class that has gotten too rowdy one morning.

"Noooooo," they say.

"They do well for the Turners," Likely said. "They take pride; the kids want the Turners to see them do well."

A way to get peace of mind

For the Turners, it started as a way to get peace of mind, when their grandchildren were in the Moss Point school system. They were concerned about the school's failing rankings. Sheila Turner went before the School Board.

Then they went to a PTO meeting, and parents were complaining. So they waited in line to speak to the principal. Instead of a complaint, they asked what they could do to help, and they were assigned -- after a thorough background check -- to Likely's class of readers.

The Turners' grandchildren moved on, but they stayed.

In their one-hour lunch break, they can take two children.

"When we're through with them, they are exhausted," Sheila Turner said. "It's tough. They're concentrating the whole time."

She sees it all as more than school.

"It's an investment in their life," she said. "We're there because we want them to do better, and we get excited with them.

"A teacher doesn't have time to get excited with one kid who does good. We make a big deal.

"I tell you, you do fall in love with them, and they do learn."

Mr. Turner in a bandana

Sometimes reading is not just about sounding out words. They can memorize words and not know what they're reading, Ken Turner said.

That's why he held a Cowboy Day. He dressed up like one when he realized the children were reading about bandanas and didn't have a clue what one was.

The Turners expose the children to new avenues. They brought their RV and demonstrated slide-out walls, invited them to free skating on church night at the skating rink, brought maps of Cancun from when they went on a cruise. On field trips, the class has seen Ken Turner's bees and a car taken apart at the garage. The Turners have funded pizza parties, bought trophies and rented a water slide.

There are other issues, not as complicated.

One of their best readers, Erianna Barnes, gets shy and soft-spoken when she reads. If the proctor can't hear the words she's reading, it doesn't count when she takes her reading tests, Sheila Turner said.

"Speak up, Erianna or I'll go get Dorian," she says during their session. "I have to hear you say it right."

The Turners don't dwell on excuses or mistakes. They push forward in a matter-of-fact way from one child to the next, not coddling or sympathizing or listening to a whine. The focus is on what they did right, unconditional progress.

It might not seem at first like love, until you hear Sheila Turner say to one child, "You did very good. You made a 100," despite the fact that some things had to be done over.

Then she takes a minute to help that same child play with the toy selected from the goody bag.

What do you get out of it?

"I don't know if I can put that in works," Ken Turner said. "You can be having a bad day. A car is beating you to death, refuses to work. Then you go down there and one of those kids picks up on something and there goes the bad day.

"They get a word. You see that little light come on, that's reward enough.

"These kids want to do good. They want to learn."

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