supporting Cambridge public school students

A Typical Day at the CSUS After-School Learning Center

Sam and studentImagine using all of your senses to take in the mixture of noise, energy and general mood in a middle school during the school day, and then comparing that to the low hum of 6th to 8th graders working one-to-one with a tutor, just minutes after the school day is over. The comparison is like night and day!

Welcome to the after-school Learning Center at the Cambridge Street Upper School (CSUS), coordinated by Tonya Banks, with assistance from CSV’s Catalina Rojas. Learning Centers serve students in grades 6-8 with free, individualized tutoring by volunteers who are recruited and trained by CSV. Each center provides students with a quiet, supportive setting in which to reinforce skills, complete homework assignments, and assist with study-skills.

On this particular day, six student/tutor pairs are working one-to-one. After a snack, things begin to settle down, with each pair busily engaged, mostly with homework. This observer immediately notices supportive, positive words from tutor to student, encouraging the student to talk. Or, there is gentle probing, such as “what is the character trying to tell you” or “how would you define social justice here”? There are many instances of support, all of it encouraging and affirmative.

It’s clear that one-to-one tutoring lets students build a relationship with someone in whom they can trust. Two of today’s volunteers, Sam Seidel and Jean Bailly, filled me in after the session was over. The trust takes time. In Sam’s case, he and his student started out last spring, using the smart board on the wall to map out a science problem on photosynthesis. They had fun and shared ideas, with Sam gradually filling in the gaps. Over several weeks, his student started settling down, becoming more trustful and serious about his time with Sam. In the fall, his student returned for tutoring, only this time he told Sam what he wanted to do: read aloud to Sam, each time. This was quite remarkable for a student who had difficulty sitting still and being present during earlier sessions. What a pleasure for this observer to see the strong connection between tutor and student that has resulted.

Jean and studentAnd for Jean, another volunteer, the connection is the thing that gives her a smile when she thinks back on how she and her student started out a bit tentatively. Jean is always working to find that balance between letting things go easily and then pushing a little harder. She knows that some of their conversation about non-academic topics is okay; it helps to build trust. And it shows in the relationship, as Jean and her student move from social studies to math homework, all the while giving him words of encouragement and support. How interesting to hear her stop and ask if he knows what “interest” means in the context of money. When he shakes his head, Jean begins, “Well, let’s say you borrow $1000 from someone, and they charge you $1 per day…”. She continues and explains her example. It was clear that he understood, and that she’d shared something that he had not known before.

For the 6th through 8th graders in the after-school Learning Center at CSUS, the relationship is the thing, on an even plane with the academic support. Bravo to the many volunteers who give their time and energy for such a worthy endeavor. And there are always eager students awaiting middle school tutors.