On Saturday, you'll find these veterans at school

A service group finds tutoring yields rich lessons

They file in with eager expressions, bounding toward a pile of workbooks. Classical music filters softly through the rooms over the loudspeaker system.

The children, about 60 each week, are here for "Saturday School" at Public School 68 on Indianapolis's east side.

Waiting to tutor them in English and math are World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans, teachers, high school students, business professionals, and others who volunteer each Saturday morning during the winter.

The brainchild of a former Indianapolis retailer, Alan "Buzz" Levinson, the program is named "Carpe Diem" ("Seize the Day") - inspired by the movie "Dead Poets Society."

The aim is to help children who often don't master basic skills early on - and to show them that an older generation is keenly interested in helping them build a strong academic foundation.

"These are our children." say Jim and Carol Mutter, tutors and veterans who moved two years ago to Indianapolis. "They are the future of our country. It's important to help as much as we can."

The project began about five years ago when Mr. Levinson, who served in World War II, and some fellow veterans wanted a project that would be uniquely their own as part of their work for the Service Club of Indianapolis.

Most such groups in the area were involved in hospital service. So, says Levinson, "I asked the group if they thought our educational system was satisfactory," No hands were raised. I then asked if they thought it could do better. All hands went up!"

After contacting city school administrators, Levinson and his peers were assigned to an inner-city school where the racial mix was 80 percent African-American and 20 percent Caucasian.

Showing we care

Being in the inner city matters, Levinson says, as "we thought it important for African-American children to see that white people do care. There's so much negativity expressed in race relations that it's refreshing to see these mostly white older men being attentive to the many African-American children involved in Carpe Diem."

The students, ranging from Grades 1 to 5, meet at 9 a.m. sharp in the school's gymnasium. They then retreat to classrooms with their tutors. Every effort is made to team up students with the same tutors each week.

School principal Margaret Myers, who opens up her school on these Saturday mornings and tutors herself, says the bonds among participants have grown. "We have tutors who have had dinner with the children's family or gone to the movies with them," she says. "I've had parents come in, look around, and exclaim: 'Wow! I want my kids here.'"

Veterans feel much the same way about their presence. Robert Hollander has been tutoring since Carpe Diem's inception. "You do what you can," he says. "I figure these kids need us."

What impresses him is the children's motivation.

"These kids are here by choice," he says. "They have to miss cartoons or sleeping in. Their parents have to bring them, because no bus transportation is provided."

Levinson says that the friendships extended to the students through the program are, in the end, more important than the material covered.

Korean War veteran Tom Heckel, a retired business executive, agrees. He says his generation may have something special to offer in this regard.

"I hope I'm doing a little of giving back for what has been done for me," he comments. "There's such a need because these children aren't always getting the support at home, and the teacher can't do it all. I think we've got to step up to the plate and nurture, guide, and support the children. If we don't regain that status that families had prior to World War II, our country will be in dire straits."

Seeing the results

Adults who work at Carpe Diem say the program has already yielded positive changes for the children. Principal Meyers says her students' scores on a yearly achievement test have risen - something she attributes in part to the efforts of Carpe Diem.

She also notes that the group got a $1,000 donation to purchase workbooks after several teachers and students wrote a grant proposal. The kids even get some nutritional advice at snacktime, when adults admonish them to eat a piece of fruit before reaching for cookies.

Lisa Lipkovitch, who teaches Title I Reading at the school and tutors at Carpe Diem, has been volunteering for two years. Not only is the relationship invaluable to these kids, she says, but it benefits her as a teacher.

"It's so much better for me as a teacher in my classroom when these kids with behavior problems come to Saturday School and get the 'one-on-one,' " she says. "Their behavior is noticeably different. They set their alarms, get their parents up. The first thing they do is walk up to their tutors and give him/her a big hug."

Many of those parents think that trip is worth the extra effort. De'Manda Smith says the tutoring benefits her three children who attend. "This is 'hands-on,' which they might be missing from the regular classroom," she comments. "It's a program all the schools should be having. My kids' grades have gone up."

One daughter is on the honor roll and "doesn't really need it," she notes, but chooses to come anyway.

Indeed, ask any one of the kids about Carpe Diem, and they're liable to give you a high-five. Most have learned, as a result of the tutoring, to become more focused, behave quietly, and even improve their grades.

"I love Saturday School," says Michael Tony. "I'm learning how not to use my fingers when I count. I really am learning a lot. What I like best is I've gone from a D to a C in reading this year."

Preston Liggins says he comes because "it makes me feel good. They try to show me different ways to learn. They work hard with us."

Feedback, years later

Levinson's goal is to have more tutors and to possibly inspire other schools to start similar tutoring groups.

Perhaps one of the most gratifying moments for Levinson came when he went into a local toy store recently to buy something for his grandson. A young clerk recognized him. "I was a part of Carpe Diem five years ago," she told Levinson. "I was having so much trouble in math, and Saturday School really helped me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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