HELPING HANDS — Spring 2008

Sophomore Alex Friedman (center), a volunteer with Each One Teach One–Jump Start, tutors seventh-graders Lonzo Steward (left) and Chris McKay at Hamilton Elementary in St. Louis. Each One Teach One’s second component “College Bound” brings together high school students with University mentors.

Undergrads Learn ‘Teaching’ by Heart

By Susan C. Thomson

More than 120 Washington University students have found something special—and rewarding to themselves and others—to do for a few hours each week. On school days as part of an after-school program, some go into St. Louis public schools to help elementary students with their homework. On Sundays, others gather at Lopata House on campus to tutor high school students.

The University students are the troops of Each One Teach One (EOTO), a volunteer tutoring program that began in 2000 in Hamilton Elementary School (designated Jump Start), added the high school students (designated College Bound) in fall 2006, and expanded into a second elementary school in January 2008.

It’s apparent that the several tutors arriving one afternoon at the original elementary school are expected and welcome. Taylor, a third-grader, leads Eric Duffy, Arts & Sciences Class of ’10, into the school lunchroom by the hand, keen to show him pictures of flowers and sunsets she’s drawn since she last saw him. “He helped me with things I didn’t understand,” Taylor says. “And sometimes when I’m reading and I don’t know how to pronounce the words, he helps me pronounce them.”

Another young student, Tara, hesitates over “cardiovascular” in her seventh-grade science textbook but quickly gets her tongue around the word with a little help from Alison Stempel, Arts & Sciences Class of ’10. Tara says she’s a good student and that the extra help from the college students has helped make her an even better one, especially in math.

The tutors “seem to really bond with the kids,” says Avis May, who, along with Hamilton’s program coordinator Katheryn Weaver, develops and implements programs for Hamilton regional sites. Last year when one of the children died in an automobile accident, half of the school’s tutors came to the funeral, May says. “They were visibly upset, and their presence meant a lot to the child’s parents and grandparents.”

May says the elementary students benefit not just from the day-to-day academic help but also from meeting the University students and learning indirectly from them about college, perhaps for the first time. Their occasional trips to campus, another feature of Each One Teach One, reinforce the college idea.

This idea has already sunk in with Tara, who says she’s aiming for Harvard or Princeton. Eighth-grader Aicennna is thinking closer to home. “I want to go to Washington University,” she says. “I like the libraries, dorms, and computer labs—all that good stuff.”

Washington University is also one of a handful of colleges in the more immediate sights of Bobbie, a senior and one of a couple dozen high school students who show up at Lopata House one Sunday afternoon. They’re a sampling of the 110 students from two local high schools that College Bound, a St. Louis nonprofit, has identified as motivated, capable of college but needing some assistance, including homework help, to make it there.

Alexander Gillula, Engineering Class of ’09 and EOTO–College Bound coordinator, guides the Sunday afternoon sessions, seeing to it that the high school students pair up with the college students most knowledgeable in the subjects troubling them. Math and science are the big sticklers, he says.

Bobbie’s block is calculus. Arriving with book, notebook, and pencil at the ready, she quickly gravitates toward Andy Russell, Arts & Sciences Class of ’11, who is not a mathematics major but has successfully taken calculus and has completed detailed tutor training.

Sitting at Bobbie’s side, he prompts her with questions: “What are you working on? What are you trying to solve for? So you know the Pythagorean theorem?” She does, and, as the time with him passes, she pencils her notebook with problems correctly and neatly solved. By session’s end she is working mostly on her own, aided only by a calculator.

“I understand it,” she says, triumphantly. “Now that I’m able to work the problems, I’ll pass the test.” And she keeps on working her problems.

For two hours, heads bend over open books, and the room hums with a constant flow of questions asked and answered, all in politely low voices. The concentration is almost palpable. Snacks set out in a corner of the room go mostly unclaimed.

As on most Sunday afternoons, Lisa Orden Zarin, College Bound’s executive director, pops in with smiles, back pats, and encouraging words all around. Surveying the scene, she notes that the students are all obviously pretty much the same age.

And that’s the beauty of this program, she says. The high school students “can see themselves in the (Washington University) students. They’re close enough in age, and they can relate to them. They go to the same Web sites. They have the same vocabulary and the same sense of humor.”

For the tutors, this is anything but a casual, drop-in activity. Before they can work with either the elementary or high school students, they must submit to a background check, take two hours of training in tutoring and people skills, and commit to one specific two-hour shift a week.

Junior Alexander Gillula describes Sunday afternoons as a learning experience not just for the high school students but for the tutors as well.

Each One Teach One is one of many volunteer opportunities offered to students through the University’s Community Service Office, directed by Stephanie N. Kurtzman, who also is associate director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service.

With even more students eager to get involved and many more schools that could benefit from their services, the program could be expanded except for what Kurtzman says is one serious limitation: That's transportation.

Fortunately, the St. Louis school system helps pay for the yellow school bus that picks up tutors at the University Monday through Thursday afternoons, delivers them to the elementary schools, and returns them to the University when they are finished.

Unfortunately, the high school students are on their own getting to the University on Sunday afternoons.

Gillula describes those Sunday afternoons as a learning experience not just for the high school students but for himself as well. From observing them—hard-working, studious, and so willing to seek help, something he never did in high school—he’s been inspired to take a more active role in his own education, he says.

“Tutoring keeps me focused to stay on top of my academics and seek the help that I need when I need it.”

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.