Monday, September 24, 2007

And we're off to a great start!

Last Wednesday and Thursday kicked off tutoring for the academic year. It was so great seeing all the new and returning volunteers and all the new and returning kids finally come together and accomplish what our organization is all about. I knew it would be a good turnout from the positive attendance we had at the orientations the previous week.

Wednesday, when we have our high schoolers went extremely smoothly - we actually had a surplus of volunteers over our students, so unfortunately we actually had to ask a couple of volunteers to be substitutes. All the new student-volunteer matches seemed to work very well and everyone even brought their homework.

Thursday, on the other had was a little rockier. First of all, we knew that we were going to be short about a dozen volunteers since we had so many new students (which is great!) sign up at our orientations. However, we were only slightly prepared for the number of new students who brought friends, cousins, and siblings along with them. By the time we were able to match up all of our students who had homework (if students didn't bring homework, then they didn't get a tutor), we still had a surplus of about 20 students. Some of our veteran volunteers were very kind in helping 2 or 3 students who had homework, but there were still well-behaved students, who brought homework, who still didn't have a tutor to help them, which is very unfortunate. What was also unfortunate was that many of the kids who just showed up and didn't bring homework were just playing on the computers or horsing around. We had to ask them to leave, but still, in the end, we need more volunteers. If you, or anyone you know is willing to volunteer to tutor middle school (and a couple of high school students), please let me know!

Also, Cabrini Connections, along with Chicago Lights at 4th Presbyterian Church and Cabrini Green Tutoring, is hosting a Tutor Training Conference this Saturday, September 29th. Registration begins at 8am and the conference goes until 2:30pm, although participants can go for a half-day.

Finally, we are looking for workshop presenters and keynote speakers at out November Tutor/Mentor Conference, which is Thursday and Friday, November 15th and 16th at Olympia Fields Country Club. If you are interested in doing a workshop or in being a keynote speaker, please fill out this form and send it to Dan Bassill.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Paul Tough's endorsement of Tutor/Mentor Programs

I forgot to mention in the previous post, that Paul Tough, in an interview on Alexander Russo's blog, "This Week in Education," mentions tutor/mentor programs as an important of closing the education gap. He cites "broader, non-instructional approaches," which could most definitely include tutoring and mentoring in helping children achieve. This interview is also very interesting to read in trying to understand what Tough was trying to get at in writing his article "What it Takes to Make a Student."

Charter Schools - How do they relate to Tutor/Mentor Programs

I apologize for not having updated in such a long time. Last week, Monday through Thursday we had both of our volunteer and student orientations, which were exhausting but also invigorating because of the number of enthusiastic volunteers and eager kids who came. An entry needs to be devoted the orientations, but that can wait until later.

What I really think needs to be discussed is an article that we were encouraged to read after last week's fellowship seminar. John Ayres, the Vice President of Communications at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers came to speak to us about Charter Schools and their importance in education reform. He had us first read an editorial from the Saturday March 18, 2006 Chicago Tribune on the successes of the closing of troubled schools and their re-opening a year later. While greatly controversial, closing schools and then opening a year later with an overhauled staff and principal has been very successful for Arne Duncan and the Chicago Public Schools.

However, an even more controversial move in education in recent years has been the advent of charter schools - public schools that are privately run. There are several charter schools in the Chicagoland area, many of them run successfully to the benefit of a great number of poor and underprivileged students. One of them, North Lawndale College Prep, will be the site and topic of our seminar this week for my fellowship.

Paul Tough, in his November 26th, 2006 New York Times Magazine article, titles his article on charter schools "Still Left Behind" and asks the question, "What will it really take to close the education gap?" One of the answers, although not the entire answer (and there really are no entire answers) is charter schools. Charter schools, a recent addition to the education reform debate, are geared towards closing this education gap between (mostly) white children from middle to upper-class neighborhoods and suburbs and (mostly) black and latino children from the poor inner city. According to Tough, there are two debates about how to close this gap, one occurring within academic circles at colleges and universities and one occurring within circles of educators, teachers and principals. Tough states that neither of these debates overlap and both point the finger at the other, either for being too critical of a difficult situation or for not doing enough in that situation. What Tough does not mention is what tutor/mentor programs do to supplement the inadequacies of these children's education.

Tough goes on to cite a 1995 study, published by University of Kansas child psychologists, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, who found that their is a gap in a child's vocabulary based on whether they grew up in a middle to upper class or lower class home. This is based not only on the number of times the child is spoken to, but also the nature of the utterances. Tough writes, "By age 3 the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children . . . they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements." Hart and Risley, from this study, made the conclusion taht "language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and acaemic succes later on in life." To counter-act this phenomenom, tutor/mentor programs such as Cabrini Connections, create an environment of learning and growing through encouragements rather than discouragements. The earlier children start in these programs, the earlier that not only their vocabulary but also their self-esteem will grow.

Another interesting phenemom that Tough writes about is that in middle class children but not in lower class children, along with this self-esteem boost from encouraging words, there is also a sense of entitlement from adults in their lives taking their concerns and dreams seriously. In tutor/mentor programs, another benefit is that with a positive role model who cares about these children, a sense of entitlement is also created in lower class children as well.

A further interesting trend in the charter school debate that seems to mirror a trend in the Tutor/Mentor program debate is that every single charter school is its own entity, there is nothing connecting one charter school to another charter school. Looking at the success of the Tutor/Mentor Connection in linking tutor/mentor programs in a database for the Chicagoland area, a similar database would work extremely well for charter schools. While organizations such as KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, founded by David Levin and Michael Feinberg in the early 90's is one such organization that links and organizes charter schools, more needs to be done to connect them just as more needs to be done to connect tutor/mentor programs in other parts of the country.

An important feature of charter schools is the instruction of study habits, including work ethic, focus, motivation, etc., what Tough places under the umbrella term "charcter. This is something many of poor children lack in their education. Tutor/mentor programs such as ours also encourage the instruction of character in creating relationships between students and their mentors. Another, extra-scholarly feature of charter schools that also can be implemented by tutor/mentor programs is the teaching of optimism - a feature that Tough attributes to a study by a University of Pennsylvania Psychology professor named Martin Seligman where "attitude is just as important as ability."Programs such as tutor/mentor programs can also promote this "learned optimism" in tutor/mentor sessions, doing, what Paul Tough emphasizes as "whatever it t[akes] to help . . . students succeed."

Another issue within the charter school debate is that parents enroll their students into a lottery system in order to be admitted to the schools. However, a problem arises in that despite being poor, these parents are aware and motivated enough to be able to enroll their children in these school admission lotteries. Many of the children of these motivated parents, despite being behind, are still far advanced from children who have no parental support at home. A solution to this problem, for both charter schools and tutor/mentor programs is that they need to go out into the neighborhood and actually recruit parents and students themelves so that even the most needy students will have a chance for help.

Another huge debate that wages between scholars in the realm of closing the education gap is whether improving education for poor students will help reduce poverty or whether the poverty is so great that first needs to be addressed before anything should be done for schools. A critic of charter schools, Richard Rothstein, a former education columnist for the New York Times, makes the former argument. Whether organizations such as Tutor/mentor connection agree with that assertion (we probably fall in the middle, wanting there to be both education reform and poverty reform) we do agree with his assertion that "the achievement gap can be significanty diminished only by correcting, or at least addressing, the deep inequities that divide the races and the classes."

Of course everything in this article, as do most debates about education, point to the No Child Left Behind Act. Tough asserts that more funding and commitment is needed in order for this act to actually be a success. However, this is where tutor/mentor programs are essential in fostering the understanding in adult volunteers that a commitment is needed into solving the problem.

Essentially, what needs to happen now is to raise the numbers of the people who are in the choir spreading the message of tutor/mentor programs and their success and closing this education gap. At the end of his article, Tough cites the motto of the conservative education movement "no excuses." No excuses should be the motto of tutor/mentor programs in creating an educated and contributing populus to the workplace and to society as a whole.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tutor/Mentor Conference, Asset-Based Community Development

September means that the November Tutor/Mentor Conference is coming up. This year it is Thursday and Friday November 15th and 16th at Olympia Fields Country Club in the South suburbs. What I need help with is finding organizations to participate in a panel on Volunteer Recruitment strategies. If you know of any people or organizations who you think would be good to participate in this panel, please let me know.

Also, Wednesday means that I had my second seminar for my fellowship today. Jody Kretzman, a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern was our speaker today. The seminar emphasized Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which is finding what the assets are in the community in order to improve. Touching on ideas developed by Jane Addams and much later Saul Alinsky, Professor Kretzman underlined the importance in looking to the leaders in a community to help create social change. He describes three steps in this strategy: 1) Finding the assets in the community, 2) Connecting them or finding community connections, 3) Harnessing the assets to create a vision for the future.

This brings me to where Cabrini Connections is following this vision of Asset-Based Community Development. I have discussed before the importance in bringing in members of the community to work with an organization such as Cabrini Connections. We have been actively trying to maintain an alumae database and hopefully as our organization grows and ages, we will have more and more alumnae who we hope to turn into community leaders and organizers themselves. As Professor Kretzman says, and I have emphasized before, members of the community are such an important part in making social change happen. While we all must look outward for leaders and resources in organizations such as Cabrini Connections, we much also look inwards.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chicago Tribune Education Article

As the new school year begins, the Chicago Tribune has published a three-part series of articles profiling the state of affairs in the inner-city Chicago public schools. Specifically, it details the hardships of one public school teacher in trying to guide and motivate a class of 8th graders at Sherman School of Excellence on Chicago's Southside. It's a fantastic series of articles - following a superior teacher through an academic year. It shows the tolls the stresses of the job puts on her, how far she takes her class in improving over the year, and the successes and failures at the end of the year. However, like many articles profiling education in our media, it doesn't ask certain important questions.

The main question it doesn't ask is what role would tutoring and mentoring programs have played in making this teacher's job easier. In the articles the teacher describes how she has to be a mother, a motivator, a teacher, a guidance counselor - everything for her 34 students. However, if there was a solid tutoring/mentoring program in the neighborhood, a huge burden would have been lifted from this dynamic teacher's shoulders. Sherman School of Excellence is in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, which is in the 60609 zipcode. If you go to our program locator on the Tutor/Mentor Connection website, you would see that there are 10 programs in that zipcode, but none specifically near Sherman Park. With gangs and other pressures in the area, venturing even out of their small area to go to a tutor/mentor program would be an issue for a lot of these kids. In the end, after reading this article, we need to ask our own questions. Hopefully, someone reading this article may be inspired to start a tutor/mentor program near Sherman School of Excellence, not only to help these children, but also to take the burden off of our outstanding teachers who get ground down by their difficult jobs.