Opinion
Student Achievement Commentary

Volunteer

By Edward Cowan — June 04, 2003 3 min read
Giving the students most in need what they need the most.

The short, pudgy 13-year-old boy wouldn’t look at me. I was trying to help him with a math problem—arithmetic, really, although his class is called “7th Grade Math.” It is a class for English-as-a-second-language students. Most of our 16 students were born elsewhere—Central America, Eastern Europe, China. Two were born in the United States, but are weak students and are with the ESL group.

“Why I got to look at you?” the pudgy boy asked, sneaking a sidelong glance at me to see how I took this mildly defiant response. That was Juan (not his real name), in December, when I began to give him special attention two or three times a week. He was—and still is, sometimes—a boy who pays little attention to what the class is doing. His responses were—and sometimes still are—languid. “He has problems at home,” said the teacher, with whom I am working for a second consecutive academic year as a volunteer tutor. Our school is in one of the more affluent (read “white”) neighborhoods of Northwest Washington, D.C., and has a heterogeneous population, about 60 percent minority or Hispanic.

One morning in March, when we were reducing fractions to simplest terms, Juan drew my attention to a fraction on the blackboard. He had written it on his own initiative. He wanted me to see that it was his work, that he had reduced it—and that he was interested.

Thereafter, Juan’s attentiveness improved, irregularly. Some days he was out of it—looking around, playing with something, joshing in Spanish with another boy, flirting lightly with a girl. But some days he attended to his schoolwork and showed that he could solve some problems, if he tried. When I took four students to the library for a review of multiplication tables, Juan tried to be the first to answer each “times” problem I posed. A European girl who is often sulky vied with him, enthusiastically.

I had similar experiences at the junior high school last year and earlier at a senior high school in Southeast Washington, the most impoverished neighborhood in the District of Columbia. Absenteeism there was high, indifference rampant. Students lay their heads on their desks, half-asleep, totally tuned out.

Yet, there, as later at the junior high school, I found that the most seemingly indifferent, slack students responded to close-up, individual attention. I could see a glimmer turn on in a child’s eyes when I gave her or him my undivided attention. Teachers told me that many came from single-parent homes in which no interest was shown in them or in their school work.

How do we give students, especially those who start with scanty English, troubled homes, or weak learning skills, the intensive attention that may help them learn better?

No teacher or administrator will be surprised by my experience. “This has been known for a hundred years,” says Polly Greenberg, a nationally known specialist in early-childhood development and education. “The relationship with the teacher and making learning meaningful to the student are what matter most.”

The problem is that the D.C. public schools and most other systems cannot afford the luxury of pupil-teacher ratios of 1-to-1 or even 4-to-1. The taxpayers won’t pay for them. Public schools must vie—at the local, state, and federal levels—for budget dollars with other worthy purposes, such as public safety, roads, sanitation, environmental protection, defense—and tax cuts. With a weak economy strangling state and local treasuries, public schools are struggling just to keep what they have.

How, then, to give students, especially those who start with scanty English, troubled homes, or weak learning skills, the intensive attention that may help them learn better? More use of volunteers may be one way. Anyone my age (69) knows educated people with free time. In fact, in Washington, there is an organization that prepares and assigns volunteer tutors to public schools, and monitors them. The tutors are a free resource.

And yet, there is little encouragement of tutors. At both schools I have volunteered at, it was difficult to find teachers who wanted such help. Integrating a tutor into the classroom complicates a teacher’s job. What should the tutor do? Should the tutor work in the corner or take his few students to another classroom, or the library, or the cafeteria? Or just drag chairs into the corridor? No doubt teachers can raise other objections.

Children with emotional problems and learning disabilities do better in small groups, as a rule. If administrators and teachers and elected school boards reach out to the community, they can tap in to human resources that will enlarge what public schools can offer students most in need of close-up, personal attention.

Edward Cowan, a retired New York Times correspondent, is an independent writer and editor in Washington.

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