Volunteering on the Hill: Tutoring

Two Students Perform the Gravity Experiment. Photo: Donald Messer

“How come you know so much? What kind of a doctor are you?” The child who asked this question of Don Messer, Ph.D., was from an elementary school in DC located in one of the poorest parts of the city. Eight years ago, with the help of the school’s principal, teachers, and a half-dozen volunteers, Messer designed a new tutoring program in the school. “I focused on mathematics and reading and questions asked in standardized tests. This was not to teach to the test, but to ensure that children understood the questions well,” he explains. The program is still running and is having a positive impact on the students being tutored.

Messer decided to tutor students in small groups of three or four to generate interactions and more learning. The groups meet once or twice a week for the entire school year, and classes are held during the school day. The goal is not only to help the students learn, but also to help them understand that there is a future for them. When the child asked Messer what kind of doctor he was, it was because she knew only of medical doctors and not other types of doctoral degrees. “As tutors, in a small way we are opening up a new window to the world for the students,” says Messer.

Tutoring can be creative and fun. Messer mentioned one of the experiments he did with students to estimate the gravitational acceleration force. “The students threw a golf ball in the air in the gymnasium. They recorded the time it took for the ball to fall from apogee to the floor, using a simple stopwatch. They repeated the exercise 25 times. Armed with the right formula they estimated the gravitational acceleration constant within three percent of its value. The experiment helped them understand how repeated approximate values, when averaged, converge to true values.”

There is ample evidence that tutoring can improve learning. That is why so many parents who have the means invest in tutoring. But children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have such opportunities. Volunteer-based programs are important for these children.

To work well, tutoring sessions should be active, varied, and even fun. They should combine structured and unstructured instruction as well as individual and collective work. They should focus on specific skills relating to what students learn during the regular school day.

Tutoring programs should also provide consistent and sustained instructional time for students. They should not be a one-off investment. Good collaboration among the students, tutors, teachers, and school administrators is also key.

Several programs operating on Capitol Hill and in the District generally have been evaluated rigorously.

In a program run by Higher Achievement, students meet three days a week during the school year. After completing homework with support from teachers and volunteers, they may have dinner and work on a specific subject in small groups with a trained volunteer mentor. This is a rigorous program – overall, students spend 650 hours per year in the program between fifth and eighth grades.

An evaluation of the program compared Higher Achievement students (“scholars”) with a control group of students who applied to the program, met the admissions criteria, but were randomly not selected to participate. The program was shown to have a positive impact after one year on mathematics proficiency and reading comprehension.

Reading Partners is another program that has been evaluated rigorously. As is the case with Higher Achievement, Reading Partners works largely with volunteers, which helps in keeping costs down. The evaluation suggests statistically significant gains in reading proficiency.

There are many opportunities to volunteer with tutoring programs. Apart from Higher Achievement and Reading Partners, Horton’s Kids, Serve Your City, and Jan’s Tutoring House, among others, are active. Information on tutoring opportunities is available online: www.higherachievement.org; www.readingpartners.org; www.hortonskids.org; www.serveyourcitydc.org; www.jan’stutoringhouse.org.

Messer and his fellow tutors have learned how to connect with the students, keep their attention, and be role models and mentors. At times the children are noisy, sometimes misbehaving and arguing. But they do value the tutoring sessions and they want to come. There is perhaps no better reward than having a fifth-grader say, “You know, Dr. Messer, you’re like my grandpa.”

This story is the second in a series in the Hill Rag on great nonprofits – and great volunteers in the community. It features nonprofits that have demonstrated a positive impact and provide volunteer opportunities for residents. Don Messer is a Rotarian with the Rotary Club of Washington, DC. Quentin Wodon is a member of the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill. To contact him please send an email through the “Contact Me” page of the www.rotarianeconomist.com blog.

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