KINZERS, Pa. (AP) — A drive along the back roads of eastern Lancaster County brought literacy coach Katie Beiler to a modest house on a quiet lane. There, 3-year-old Jayce greeted her with a smile that belied contrariness.

Beiler, 26, visits homes in the Pequea Valley School District to help youngsters get ready for kindergarten.

Sandy-haired, barefoot Jayce took the book Beiler wanted his mother to read with him and left the living room. On returning, he announced, "I put it in the trash."

Jayce's mother, Raena Ohar, didn't overreact. She suggested they read the book in his tunnel, a colorful six feet of fabric for crawling through. Jayce immediately retrieved the book — it was Todd Parr's "The Feelings Book" — and wriggled into the tunnel, eager to cooperate.

"I loved the way you made it interesting to him by offering an option," said Beiler, who held Ohar's 2-month-old son, Junior, while the young mom of four interacted with Jayce.

Other districts have home visitors like Beiler who work with preschoolers, but what's different about Beiler is she's employed by a church, not the school district.

Grace Point Church in Paradise hired Beiler instead of a second assistant pastor after learning about the district's need to have children better prepared for school. Beiler has a Pequea Valley identification tag and reports to a district official, but officially she's on the staff of the 250-member church, giving monthly updates to the pastor.

"Our church doesn't just exist for ourselves," said Tim Rogers, lead pastor. "Our vision is being a transforming presence in the town square."

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"Our church doesn't just exist for ourselves. Our vision is being a transforming presence in the town square."

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The seed for the school-church partnership was planted a couple of years ago at a conference attended by Rogers and Rich Eby, assistant to Pequea Valley's superintendent.

Rogers asked Eby an open-ended question: Was there anything the church could do to help Pequea Valley?

Eby's rural district of 1,600 students is experiencing a rise in poverty. He told Rogers of the need for a teacher to visit parents of infants and toddlers and to encourage reading aloud and other practices to build vocabulary, social skills and curious minds.

Fortuitously, Rogers recalled a conversation months earlier with Beiler, a member of his church. While she enjoyed teaching third-graders at Central Dauphin School District, she had told Rogers she was feeling a nudge to work with preschoolers.

On returning to Grace Point after the conference, Rogers talked to Beiler and church elders about Pequea Valley's need. Meanwhile, Eby had discussions with school staff and board members about how to make the position work without violating church/state separation.

Pequea Valley trusts Grace Point Church to honor the district's expectation that Beiler function like any other public school employee, Eby said.

"The school needs to have that confidence, especially if they are going to issue her PV credentials," Rogers said. "The church understands that and respects the mission of the school."

In the end, Pequea Valley wrote a job description for a birth-to-age-5 literacy liaison, Beiler applied and the congregation gave a green light to the novel partnership. Beiler started her new job last August.

"It was more than saying (to church members), 'Do you think this a good idea?' " Rogers said. "It was, 'This might cost you. But this lines up with the town square (vision) that we had talked about.' "

At the congregational meeting, Rogers said, the new position won unanimous support.

"It would have been gnawing at me to find a way to do this."

Meanwhile, Pequea Valley obtained a $45,000 state grant for birth-to-age-5 literacy initiatives that it applies to Beiler's position to reduce the cost to the church, Eby said. The new program costs about $70,000, including salary, benefits, supplies, professional development and mileage reimbursement.

The district hopes to get the grant for three more years, after which Grace Point has said it will shoulder the position's entire cost, its generosity giving the community's children a more level playing field.

Without Grace Point's commitment, literacy outreach wouldn't be happening across Pequea Valley's 81 square miles of rolling countryside bisected by Route 30, along which many homes have been turned into low-rent apartments.

About 56 percent of the district's students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches, the third highest percentage in Lancaster County. Experts say poverty can hinder kindergarten readiness.

Of 16 Lancaster County school districts, Pequea Valley ranked 13th last year in the percentage of third graders (64.8 percent) passing the state's standardized English language arts test.

"It would have been gnawing at me to find a way to do this," Eby said, if Grace Point hadn't volunteered to help fund the outreach initiative.

"It's kind of like Miss Katie is the walking handbook on how to parent."

The school-church partnership grew out of relationships developed through the Together Initiative Network, a hub of social services backed by leaders from local government, schools, nonprofits, businesses and churches in the Pequea Valley area and funded in part by the United Way.

Rogers said the United Way's collective impact model and focus on goals such as kindergarten readiness is starting to show results.

"It has truly made a difference in our ability to bring more partners to the (Together Initiative) table for deeper conversations and, in my opinion, better solutions," he said.

At the homes she visits, Beiler, slender and dark-haired, is a calm, nonjudgmental presence. Some children she sees monthly; others twice a month. She uses the nationally recognized "Parents As Teachers" curriculum, not religious materials, and tailors the lessons to each child's needs. Beiler also visits preschools and teaches literacy workshops for groups of parents and children.

Beiler currently visits the homes of 14 families, where she serves 24 children. Since August, she has interacted with a total of 63 children through home visits and workshops.

Jayce's erratic behavior tested his mother's patience during Beiler's hourlong visit, but during periods of calm, Ohar engaged her son in coloring, looking at books, pointing out the letter 'J' and helping to read a book to his little brother.

Beiler commended Ohar for trying to apply consistent discipline in a loving and nurturing way.

"At school, teachers are going to be consistent, and if you're preparing Jayce and Junior for school, you need to show that as well at home," she said.

Ohar recounted a challenging visit to the supermarket with her three children, ages 3 to 7, while she was pregnant. She had promised them money to play a coin-operated crane if they behaved. But they didn't, and she held firm, tears welling as she resisted their badgering.

"I was exhausted," Ohar said. "I was at the car loading the groceries. Kids, buckled in, still screaming."

Turning around, Ohar faced a woman who handed her flowers and told her she was amazing. Beiler said the story demonstrates just how hard Ohar is working on consistency.

"People are always like, 'There wasn't a handbook on parenting,' " Ohar said. "Well, it's kind of like Miss Katie is the walking handbook on how to parent and how to teach your kid."

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Information from: LNP, http://lancasteronline.com