Benefits on both sides of the tutoring table

Volunteers in New York outnumber those in the Peace Corps

As a regional finance manager for Federal Express, working long hours in the city that never sleeps, Patricia Smail hardly needs to squeeze additional commitments into her schedule. Yet every Tuesday night finds her at a New York City public high school, poring over geometry problems with teenagers.

She says she does it for the "glow" - the joy that comes with doing something nice for others.

Educators have long said that one-on-one help can make a difference for a child who's struggling to keep up academically. And with so many parents stumped by new teaching methods, or just plain too busy, the demand for tutoring programs is reaching stampede proportions.

But for many adults who dive into tutoring because they sense that they have something to offer, the benefits they reap can come as a surprise. "Hundreds of times I've heard the tutors say they get even more out of it than the students do," comments one worker at a New York City school.

Schools, like other sectors of society, are getting extra help from a rise in volunteering. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Sector, about 56 percent of Americans volunteered in 1998, up from 45 percent in 1987.

New York boasts a healthy cadre of volunteers in its public schools, thanks in part to the efforts of Learning Leaders, a nonprofit organization set up in 1956 to recruit, train, and place school volunteers. Currently this group has about 9,600 tutors - outnumbering the Peace Corps - working in New York schools.

These volunteers serve throughout the city. But one school has proved an especially powerful magnet for enthusiastic tutors. Manhattan Comprehensive was set up within the public school system to serve immigrants and onetime dropouts - slightly older students who might have left school at some point but are now eager to get their diplomas.

Currently, 140 volunteers tutor at the 800-student school. One reason for its popularity is the flexibility of its hours. Students attend classes on day shifts and night shifts, Sunday through Thursday.

"We get some tutors who come in as late as 9 p.m., when they finish work, and others who come by after church on Sunday," says Eric Williams, the volunteer coordinator. "Basically, if you want to find a way to work here, we'll find a way to use you."

But another reason tutors are drawn to the school, Mr. Williams says, is the motivation and commitment of the students, who range in age from 17 to 22, and the fact that they come from about 52 countries.

Mario Elyjiw, who emigrated from Buenos Aires as a child, says he chose to tutor at Manhattan Comprehensive simply because it was the public school closest to his apartment.

"I saw an ad calling for tutors in the subway five years ago," he says. "It struck me as something I've always wanted to do. But it was only after I started tutoring that I really found out why."

Mr. Elyjiw, an interior designer with his own business, now arranges his weeks so he can tutor at Manhattan Comprehensive on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He was drawn to Hispanic students struggling to learn English; he offers a group tutorial in English-language skills.

"I have no kids of my own, so this is my way of having access to the generation that follows," he says. "It's a kind of mix of teaching and parenting. It's a means of passing on the life lessons that you have found valuable."

It's a time commitment, but one he gladly makes, Elyjiw says. People who haven't been touched by the bond that forms between tutor and pupil perhaps don't understand the degree to which "tutoring serves many needs of the tutor as well," he says.

Simona McCray-Peterson also found a connection to immigrant students. She arrived in the United States in 1936 to begin kindergarten after her Italian-Jewish family fled Mussolini's regime. When she retired from her work as the sales manager of a New York radio station, she was eager to volunteer, but quickly dismissed the notion of tutoring because she didn't want to make a fixed weekly commitment.

But after failing to find another volunteer activity that really engaged her, Mrs. McCray-Peterson decided to give tutoring a try.

The fit was perfect. She began working with some students who had emigrated from Haiti and quickly found herself moving from the role of academic tutor to that of mentor. It touched her at an emotional level to a degree she hadn't anticipated.

Soon she found she was helping her students with everything from getting proper dental work to furnishing their apartments. She also became a teaching assistant in an American history class at the school, an experience she enjoyed so much that she went on to become certified to work as a substitute teacher.

As she watches history students from so many backgrounds learn about the building of the US, she says she's sometimes moved to tears.

Robert Delaney has been able to make a different kind of contribution to Manhattan Comprehensive. When he started tutoring after retiring from a position as a senior executive at Brooklyn Union Gas, he was struck by the void where guidance counselors and college-application resources should have been.

Working with two teachers, Mr. Delaney developed the equivalent of a guidance center. He reserved a room, held assemblies, reviewed academic work with students who asked for help, and encouraged the young people to take SATs. Spending a full day each week at the school, he helps those who are interested work through every step of the admissions process. And he's available by phone to students who need him throughout the week.

His reward has been seeing about 70 percent of the students from the school's day shift accepted into colleges, with some receiving full scholarships from top-drawer schools like Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

These accomplishments don't mean that tutoring is easy. Some adult volunteers say they struggle with students who don't seem willing to invest much effort of their own in their studies. Others find it uncomfortable to work with kids with whom they seem to have little in common.

But many who are able to stick it out through the beginning sessions find the experience gets deeper and better as they go. Sometimes, some volunteers say, they learn as much about persistence as do their students.

At Manhattan Comprehensive, Williams says one of the joys of his job as volunteer coordinator has been getting to know some of the remarkable individuals who are willing to work as tutors.

"We have everything from vice presidents to freelance artists to writers - an abundance of talent and resources," he says. "They are people wanting to give something back."


(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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