[EDLING:1141] Where's a Tutor When You Need One? Check Upstairs

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU
Wed Dec 21 16:12:40 UTC 2005

from the NYTimes, December 21, 2005

Where's a Tutor When You Need One? Check Upstairs

BOSTON - Lisa Hwang thought she would end up with an impressive job at a
research institute or possibly the World Bank after receiving a master's
degree in international education administration and policy analysis from
Stanford University in May 2004. Instead, Ms. Hwang, at age 29, is living
in a cramped dormitory on the top floor of a high school here. Alcohol and
overnight guests are banned, and residents subsist on peanut butter and
cereal purchased with their $600-a-month stipend.

"My parents were like, 'What are you doing?' " Ms. Hwang said. Ms. Hwang
changed course after hearing about Match Corps, a yearlong tutoring
program at the Media and Technology Charter High School here, which
primarily enrolls minority students from poor urban neighborhoods.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, 77 percent of the
students are classified as low-income. The full-time tutoring program, now
in its second year, pairs tutors - most of them recent college graduates -
with four students at a time. The students spend a minimum of two periods
a day with the tutor.

The tutoring has played a large part in improving the school's test
scores, administrators said. This year, 69 percent of the school's
sophomores tested as advanced, the highest possible rating, on the math
portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the
fourth-highest percentage in the state. The school ranked 18th out of 338
Massachusetts high schools in English, with 32 percent of students testing
as advanced. The scores represent a sea change for the students, all
Boston residents admitted to the charter school through a blind lottery.
The majority tested in the bottom rungs of the test in eighth grade,
administrators said.

The scores also signify a major shift for the school, validating its
philosophy of long hours, discipline and strong student-mentor
relationships, administrators said. "There's an authenticity here," said
Charles Sposato, the school's principal. "We truly care for these kids,
and they can see it. We have to know the playing field is uneven for these
kids, and we do everything we can to even it. That means going to their
houses, the hospital, jail, you name it."

In 2002, the first year Match sophomores took the math test, 20 percent of
students failed and 46 percent tested as needing improvement. English
scores were better - nearly half of the students scored in the second
tier, or proficient, while 6 percent tested as advanced. Administrators
and experts who have seen the school said it took not only a dedicated
staff, but also a group of demanding tutors, to help such students
succeed. "There's a very clear focus on what needs to be learned, and a
very clear support strategy - if they don't learn it in class they'll
learn it in tutoring," said Katherine Merseth, a professor at the Harvard
University Graduate School of Education. "There's an academic sense of
purpose and seriousness that the school is about learning. It's permeated
to the kids and permeated to the staff."

Some critics charge that the test scores are deceptive because of the
school's nearly 20 percent attrition rate. Students who cannot handle the
work pass back into regular public high schools, said Marilyn Segal,
director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston watchdog group. "When
you look at all those kids passing M.C.A.S. with flying colors, take a
look at how many students entered the class and where the rest of them
went," said Ms. Segal. "They went back into the Boston public school
system and had their scores counted in those schools."

After two years of part-time tutors, administrators hatched a plan in 2003
to create a full-time tutoring corps, converting the school's top floor
into a dorm. The goal was to have the tutors help the students master
basic skills so teachers could teach more effective lessons. The tutors
also act as teachers' assistants, helping with administrative tasks and
research. Only sophomores had to have tutoring until 2004; now all
students must.

The school raised $1.05 million for the building conversion from
individual donors, along with an additional $250,000 for operating costs
and a $309,000 AmeriCorps grant. The charter school, which can solicit
grants and donations, advertised at universities and on the Internet. The
program received 460 tutoring applicants for 45 spots last year; this year
there are 42 tutors supervised by Ms. Hwang, who became the program
director. Tutors sleep three to a room and share a common living area and
small kitchenette.

"When we first did it people were thinking we're totally nuts, that it
would become 'Animal House,' " said Michael Goldstein, the school's
founder and research director. "But now that the results are in, it shows
that the corps members are unbelievably dedicated." The arrangement,
however, has put a crimp in the tutors' social lives.  Many say they are
too tired at the end of the day and too broke to go out. "I don't go
shopping," said one of the tutors, Claire Hackney, 23.

"I'm a single guy in Boston," said Zach Svigals, 23, "and I'm not about to
bring anyone I date back to my room, where I'm sleeping with two other
guys." Justin Sallis, 22, moved out when a cheap rental became available.
"It's a stressful position. A nice beer when you get off is nice," he
said. Mr. Svigals said he needed to leave the building daily to get away
from the pressures of work for a while. But, he added, the upside to
living above the school is the commute.

"On Mondays I try to get my kids to stay for extra help," he said. "I get
calls at 11 at night. The communication lines are open, and whenever they
need help I give it." Proponents of the program, including Professor
Merseth, say the model can be duplicated on a smaller scale and budget.
Others, while enthusiastic about what the school has done, do not think it
can be widely replicated. "You couldn't run a public school district this
way," said Doug Sears, dean of the Boston University School of Education.

On a recent gray, soggy morning, students and their tutors huddled around
tables in a large classroom, drilling vocabulary words, discussing Alex
Haley's "Roots" and plotting vectors. Mr. Sallis, a recent graduate of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, played "Algebra II Jeopardy!" with
Terrell Moon, 17, and Alex Paul, 15, both sophomores. Terrell, who
repeated the ninth grade last year, had struggled through school, and
enrolled in Match hoping it would prepare him for college. He felt
frustrated and overwhelmed by the workload and rules, but said that
tutoring helped him pass to the 10th grade. "I know if I didn't have a
tutor I wouldn't get the grades I got," he said. "I don't want to be the
average person making the average pay and do everything average. I want to
push myself above that and achieve my goals."

Copyright 2005The New York Times Company


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