Catching hold of their dreams
Nonprofit tutoring program for Palo Alto students teaches more than academics
Tutor Annie Osborn was negotiating with Jordan Middle School seventh-grader Eunice Navarro earlier this week over Eunice's daily homework schedule. They'd already sketched out an hour for homework in the afternoon and were now eyeing the after-dinner slot.
"Homework twice?" Eunice asked, her eyes widening.
"How long does homework take each day?" Osborne asked.
Eunice figured it took two hours. She looked at the schedule again, with homework planned for 7-7:45 p.m.
"That's enough!" Eunice said, hopeful of convincing Osborne.
"Why don't you give it that time, just in case," Osborne said, smiling. "And if you're done early, you have free time."
At DreamCatchers, a weekly tutoring program held in Palo Alto, about 30 students not only get help with math, reading, social studies and other subjects — they are schooled in how to become better lifelong learners.
On Monday, they discussed homework schedules and how to make their study areas distraction-free. In past sessions, they've talked about how to set and achieve reasonable goals, concentrate instead of get distracted, take initiative, keep schoolwork and supplies organized, and more.
Their tutors, mostly Stanford University students, work alongside the students, who range from sixth- to 10th-grade and are referred by school counselors based on academic need.
Forming a supportive relationship between tutors and students — not just providing an academic brain dump — is a key aspect of the program.
"Tutors are not just tutors. They're mentors and role models," said Carlos Guzman, DreamCatchers' tutoring program director, as he helped Monday at Palo Alto High School, one of two program sites.
Eunice calls Osborne "very supportive. She checks up on me."
Once, when daunted by an English assignment due the next day, Eunice e-mailed Osborne.
"She helped me step by step," said Eunice, her red hoop earrings swinging under her straight brown hair.
The philosophy of the three-year-old nonprofit, which received a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this past year, is that students can develop their intelligence and talents through hard work and learned skills and strategies. This "growth mindset," an idea formulated by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, points to potential that is not limited by family circumstances or innate gifts.
The mindset stands counter to what Osborne grew up with, one that assumed intelligence is fixed from birth, she said. When she did well as a child, people reinforced that "fixed mindset," telling her, "You're so smart."
Now Osborne is learning to encourage Eunice by praising her skills rather than automatically saying, "You're so smart."
"Figuring out how to do that is hard," Osborne admitted.
Tutor Charlie Read, a software programmer and one of two volunteers who aren't Stanford students, also appreciates the growth-mindset philosophy.
"The ultimate goal is to instill those learning values and abilities that will stick with them forever," he said.
Read himself is learning from DreamCatchers, he said. The tutor training has shown him how to individualize the help he provides, tailoring his approach to account for the student's unique personality and thus bringing out the best in his tutee.
"That's what's different about this program," Read said. DreamCatchers encourages tutors to consider questions such as: "What kind of student do you have? Are they visually oriented? What's the best strategy?"
Eunice's mother, Lucia Peguero, said she is grateful for the program, which also serves her son, Diego. Her kids' grades have improved, and her son is more confident and sociable, she said.
"He really likes it," she said. "We are so lucky."
Student Kimberly Sanchez, who attends Paly, also likes the program and the friends — both adult and teenaged — she's met there.
"It's helped a lot. DreamCatchers is a good program for kids to raise up their grades.
"They wouldn't give up on you."
Through the financial contributions of community members, the Weekly Holiday Fund supports programs, like DreamCatchers, for youth and families in the Palo Alto area. To read more about the campaign and make a contribution, please see the ad on page 23.
Managing Editor Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.