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Educating students, one by one

Volunteer tutors provide struggling kids with social-emotional stability along with academic help

Lynn Martin, a volunteer tutor with All Students Matter, reads with Sebastian Contreras during their reading period at Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Inside a quiet classroom at Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto on Monday afternoon, Gyna Monroy reclined on a blue beanbag, carefully reading aloud from a picture book called "There's a Bird on Your Head!"

With a tutor's gentle prompting, the third-grader worked her way through more difficult words. She sounded out each letter in "idea" before she strung the whole word together, excitedly.

Gyna is one of the more than 2,000 students served by All Students Matter, a volunteer-driven nonprofit providing literacy, math and social-emotional support to elementary school students in the Ravenswood City School District. All Students Matter received $5,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this year, paying for new volunteer training that the organization's founder described as "invaluable."

As All Students Matter has grown — from 15 people informally volunteering in one Ravenswood school 10 years ago to more than 200 volunteers at six schools — so have the needs of the students it serves. This is reflected in the revamped training, which now consists of one hour focused on literacy and, new last year, one hour on social-emotional support.

All Students Matter Executive Director Carolyn Blatman, who is unpaid, said the addition of social-emotional training is a direct result of seeing more students struggling with unstable housing conditions in East Palo Alto. The number fluctuates throughout the year, but most recently, 44 percent of Ravenswood students were identified as homeless, she said. Many others live in overcrowded homes with multiple families, are acting as parents to younger siblings or might not have the time or space to read quietly or get a good night's sleep. She said the organization has seen more and more students in recent years dealing with these kind of problems, which manifest in students acting out in the classroom.

All Students Matter has also brought in organizations like the counseling nonprofit Cassy and youth mental health nonprofit Children's Health Council to speak to volunteers.

The new training helps volunteers "instill patience and love for the kids," said Jeanette Kennedy, a volunteer who has become All Students Matter's director of strategic planning and marketing. "(If) they're not paying attention that day, they're yawning, they're tired ... (the volunteer has) to be able to just switch gears. Maybe instead of having them read to you if they're too tired that day, you read to them, and it's still literacy and it's still helping and it's still supportive."

The literacy training is now more like a workshop instead of a lecture and mirrors what the district provides to its own teachers. All Students Matter's part-time program manager, Keri Tully, a former teacher, developed the training in conjunction with Ravenswood's reading and writing specialists. (Tully is the only paid staff member at All Students Matter. The majority of the nonprofit's $50,000 budget funds her salary; the rest goes towards books for students, lunch for teachers, literacy kits and other materials.)

The volunteers, like All Students Matter's founders, are mostly parents from neighboring, higher-achieving and more affluent districts. The nonprofit also offers monthly "coffees" for volunteers to meet one another and ask questions. These events and the new training go a long way toward retaining volunteers, which in turn provides consistency to students and teachers.

Every Ravenswood teacher the nonprofit works with gets three trained volunteers each year and can ask them to support students however the teachers see fit. There is no pre-set agenda — flexibility Blatman said is unique in a community where outside organizations often "come in and say, 'We have the answer; here are your problems.'"

A teacher usually identifies a small set of students who are struggling and asks the volunteers to work with them one-on-one, targeting reading comprehension or finishing a homework assignment.

On Monday afternoon, four All Students Matter volunteers read quietly one-on-one with four Brentwood third-graders in a separate classroom. Many students the organization works with are reading below their grade level — a trend across the district, where 81 percent of students are below grade level in reading and 88 percent in math — and the volunteers work to bring them up to speed. Early on, the district asked the nonprofit to focus explicitly on reading.

But it's more than just tutoring. As the students turned pages of their books, volunteers casually peppered them with non-academic questions and comments, like how their Thanksgiving was.

The volunteer "may be the one consistent adult that they can talk to," Blatman said. "There's not an adult to sit quietly and listen (to them). That's a rare thing and we can give that."

All Students Matter (ASM) serves a dual purpose: supporting teachers by helping students. The organization aims to increase teacher retention, which Kennedy said has improved in recent years.

For many teachers managing large classrooms, the support is invaluable, said Ji Wook Choi, who teaches third grade at Brentwood. The volunteers provide a level of differentiation and one-on-one attention that she isn't always able to, she said.

"I wouldn't be able to do my job without ASM," she said. "They really push my kids forward."

This year, All Students Matter met its goal of being in all six Ravenswood schools at all grades, from transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. Blatman said the organization has no plans to grow beyond Ravenswood — she thinks it's most effective working locally — but there are plans to refine the program and expand within the district. A math pilot project will start in early 2018, and they're working more intensively with students who are reading just below grade level.

Despite the volunteers' intention to keep the organization small, Tully sees potential in other regions in the Bay Area where, similarly, an affluent community borders a less-fortunate one, like Emerald Hills and Redwood City, Oakland Hills and Oakland or Marin County and Marin City. She hopes others replicate their work.

"It would be easy for any other community to say, 'We sure would like to do what you're doing,' and we would happily support them," she said.

More information about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be found here.

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