Sister Myra Weitl will speak about her work the last 17 years in the EXCEL Learning Center tutoring program at Calhoun City, Miss, at the Catholic Daughters of the Americas’ dinner meeting on Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Bishop Greteman Center. Call Marge Hupp at 792-2583 to make reservations. Guests are welcomed.
Sister Myra Weitl will speak about her work the last 17 years in the EXCEL Learning Center tutoring program at Calhoun City, Miss, at the Catholic Daughters of the Americas’ dinner meeting on Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Bishop Greteman Center. Call Marge Hupp at 792-2583 to make reservations. Guests are welcomed.
Friday, August 31, 2012

For struggling students, a little close attention can make a big difference in helping them succeed in the classroom.

That was the experience the last 17 years of Sister Myra Weitl, a Templeton-area native who has taught in the EXCEL Learning Center in Calhoun City, Miss.

“They’re smart children, but they get lost in the cracks someplace,” Sister Myra says of the children she tutored at EXCEL, which stands for Enrichment and Excellence Through Community Education Leadership.

Sister Myra, who will turn 75 on Oct. 1, currently is visiting her sister Arlene Stangl of rural Dedham, as she recently retired following a 53-year teaching career and will be moving in mid-September to the mother house of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque. There she will be a caregiver for older sisters.

Sister Myra will talk about her career on Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Catholic Daughters of the Americas dinner meeting at the Bishop Greteman Center at Holy Spirit Catholic Church.

Reservations can be made by contacting Marge Hupp at 792-2583 by Monday. Guests are welcome.

With EXCEL Learning Center, Sister Myra served students from three communities — Calhoun City (population 1,700), Bruce (1,900) and Vardaman (1,300)  in Calhoun County (14,400), located in the north-central part of the state.  

“Any children in the county struggling in school can come to EXCEL,” Sister Myra says. “We help them with their homework so they can become successful in school.”

EXCEL teaches students in grades 1 through 6 in any subject.

Sister Myra has been one of EXCEL’s three teachers, primarily serving fourth- through sixth-grade students. Another nun has taught third grade, which has had big enrollment, and a lay teacher has tutored first and second grades. Sister Myra has been succeeded this year by a lay teacher.

EXCEL provides two different 1½-hour tutoring sessions — one immediately after school and the second beginning following a 15-minute break.

EXCEL has enjoyed strong cooperation with schools in the three communities, according to Sister Myra.

“The teachers and principals are very cooperative,” she says. “They give us books and information the children need for us to help them.”

Sister Myra visited every Monday with teachers who had children at EXCEL. Teachers provided lesson plans and worksheets, she says, “so we could effectively help (students) so that when they went to school the next day they were pretty well catching up again.”

Many students needing EXCEL’s help come from financially struggling families, Sister Myra says, and she estimates as many as half of the children were enrolled in EXCEL by grandparents.

“Parents married young or they were single parents, and grandparents recognized children were not getting the help at home that they need, so they looked to some outside help for them,” Sister Myra observes.

The school year in Calhoun County starts in early August, and EXCEL begins helping students two or three weeks into the year.

“We want to help them right away at the beginning rather than let them slide,” Sister Myra says.

And children responded well to the extra attention, she says.

While initially some may resist more schoolwork, she says, “After they’ve been there a week or two then the cooperation is wonderful, and they know it’s to their advantage to be there.”

She adds, “We suggested they stay (in the program) two or three months so they would they would have good footing.”

Sister Myra worked with a number of children who progressed from EXCEL to become honor-roll students. Recognizing the difference EXCEL made, some of those students stayed in the program even after achieving the honor roll.

Although she primarily served grade-school students, Sister Myra also helped some high school students who sought tutoring.

 “A few high school students started coming and asked if I’d help them,” she says. “They would come during study halls, so I’d teach them individually or two at a time. It was the same situation (as the grade-school program). They’d gotten lost somewhere along the line, but they’d pick it up faster when I had just one or two.”

A key message in her address to the Catholic Daughters, Sister Myra says: “No matter where a child is, what part of the country, religion or ethnic background, they have the right to equal opportunity to get a good education.

“I wake up every morning and thank God I have an Iowa education, really superb.”

In EXCEL, she says, “I taught a lot of children who don’t have their basic facts, and they can’t do much in math  if they don’t know how to add, subtract, multiply or divide.”

Sister Myra grew up on a farm near Templeton on U.S. Highway 71. She was one of Charles and Anna Weitl’s seven children — three daughters and four sons. The fifth-youngest among the children, Sister Myra says, she received strong education foundation from her parents and older siblings.

“You knew from home training where brothers and sisters did math together. Then you had a good head start,” she says.

With the students she tutored, she says, “You have to back up and help them memorize math facts before they can do any kind of math in the classroom.”

Sister Myra was gratified when she received visits from some former EXCEL students who have gone on graduate from college and land teaching jobs. Other former students had entered military service and were receiving more schooling there.

Sister Myra says of the rewards of her efforts, “I’ve always said my biggest joy is when I see children who are struggling, and they try and try. And after a certain amount of time all of a sudden the light goes on. You can see it. It’s pure joy. Then you know some child is off and running.”

Sister Myra became an EXCEL teacher thanks to persuasion from another Templeton-area native who’s a member of the same religious order, Sister Nancy Schreck. Sister Nancy, daughter of Marie Schreck of Carroll and the late Elmer Schreck, who was pastoral minister in a community near Calhoun City,  was asked about the availability of educators who could work in the program.

“That’s how I got down there. Sister Nancy Schreck invited me to come down,” Sister Myra says.

Sister Nancy is now mother general of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque.

Sister Myra credits the influence of the Sisters of St. Francis who taught her from kindergarten through 12th grade at Sacred Heart in Templeton with her decision to become a nun and teacher.

“I saw what they did and wanted to do some of the same things,” she recalls. “They were interested in everybody and taught everybody on an individual basis. I felt we were all educated to a high level. And they were kind. I liked them treating us all alike and treating us nicely.”

She joined the convent right after high school and earned a bachelor’s degree, embarking her on 53 years of teaching.

She began her teaching career at a parish in Minneapolis, Minn. In Iowa she taught St. Donatus and Holy Cross, both in the Dubuque area; Alton, in Sioux County; Remsen, in Plymouth County; and Arcadia’s St. John School for 10 years. She then began with EXCEL in 1995.

For the first 12 years, EXCEL tutored students in a double-wide trailer located across from the high school. The program then purchased a dilapidated building on town square. Retired volunteers from Rock Valley, Iowa, descended on Calhoun City and gave that building new life, making major repairs and improvements. The new facility gives EXCEL much more space to meet needs of the 30 or more students who come for help each day.

 EXCEL is non-profit and not faith-affiliated. In fact, Sister Myra says, Southern Baptist is the predominant congregation in that area. There are few Catholics.

Tuition is nominal — $40 for one child, and $30 for each additional child from a family. The program relies heavily on donations.

The ties Sister Myra enjoys with the Arcadia area has benefited EXCEL. When St. John School closed in the community, many supplies from that school were donated to the Calhoun City program. Over the years, area families have also donated quilts, clothes and personal-care items that Sister Myra has given to needy families.

Attendance in EXCEL requires students’ families also take a role in the program.

“One of the rules is that an adult had to come and work in the program with us one day a month,” Sister Myra says. “And in many cases parents were learning along with the children things they didn’t know before, especially math. A lot of the parents signed up their children because the children didn’t understand math. But a lot of the parents said they couldn’t help them either because the terminology and things have changed so much since they went to school.

“So when they came in, they sat either beside their child or somebody else’s child for the hour and a half, and we gave them the manual so they would know what the answer was and then help the child arrive at the answer needed.”

Parents also were required to attend one meeting a month on topics that could benefit them such as health care, home finances and children’s safety.

By the time she left Calhoun City, Sister Myra says, she was heartened to see that more and more people had found the value of the tutoring program.