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Tutoring on the Point

Five years ago a group of youth workers, members from community organizations, and people from the university came together to form the Positive Youth Development Committee. The Committee was formed as part of the Community Outreach Partnership Grant given by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD COPC). The purpose of the COPC Grant was to provide funding for projects that would enhance Columbia Point (this is where we go to school, also referred to as Harbor Point), and to help those who live and work there plan for the future. It was in this group that the need for an after-school tutoring and mentoring program for elementary school youth living in Columbia Point was first identified.

In the fall of 2005, Professor Joan Arches in the College of Public and Community Service realized the idea. Arches began teaching a service-learning course in which students were given the opportunity to administer a tutoring and mentoring program to members of The Walter Denney Youth Center, a branch of the Boys and Girls Club in Harbor Point. If kids in Harbor Point needed after school help, who better to provide assistance than nearby college students? We thought it was a great idea. It took some time to convince the kids themselves, but it was.

The pilot semester off the tutoring program got off to a bumpy start. We began showing up each afternoon at the Walter Denney, and milled around uncomfortably waiting for the kids to get out of school. When they arrived, we would ask, attempt to persuade, and eventually beg the kids to come to tutoring. We succeeded in getting a core group of about ten kids to walk across the apartment complex with us to our makeshift tutoring center. We tutored initially in a computer lab. Often we would arrive to find ourselves locked out of the space. Without our own supplies, we each began carrying extra pencils and pens. We brought in games and books from home. I began raiding recycling bins across campus for excess paper to use as scrap for math problems. Even when we were able to successfully provide a pencil for each kid, we had a hard time convincing the kids to work on their homework. One audacious girl, who we’ll call Keisha, comes to mind.

Keisha’s first day in the tutoring program went something like this; she walked in, sat in the furthest desk in the back, pulled her hat over her face, and refused to take out her homework. Keisha was a first grader at the time. Eventually, she stood up, climbed onto her desk, flung a pencil across the room, and hooted. I stood in front of the desk, looking up at her. I thought seriously about giving up.

I felt inexperienced and transparent. What made me think I could do this? Maybe Keisha wasn’t ready to be tutored. Maybe I wasn’t up to the task of working with her, or any of these kids. Somehow we got through that first afternoon. I don’t remember if we did any homework. In retrospect, it doesn’t matter. The next week, we were both back. Many of the first sessions went like this. We faced off day after day. Maybe pencil tossing lost its appeal, maybe we both got bored, but we began doing homework. Two and a half years later, we’re both still here.

The tutoring program, now called the Harbor Point Outreach Program, has expanded. We are now able to provide tutoring and mentoring to 25 to 30 kids per week. Today, kids beg us to come. We fill both sessions each afternoon, Monday through Thursday. There are many explanations for the increased popularity of the program. We now have our own space in Harbor Point. The tutoring center is a brightly colored room decorated with the kid’s artwork, and filled with books, games, and supplies. Photographs of the kids line the walls. UMass has donated a couch, tables, and chairs. Using funds allocated to us by the Learn and Serve Grant, we started a snack program last year. These changes were instituted after listening to and responding to the needs of the youth. By spending day after day with the kids, we began to realize what they needed to help them focus. They needed a snack after school. They were willing to work with us, but they wanted to play also. Sometimes they needed to sit and talk, or hang out.

Someone once said, “80 percent of success is just showing up,” (ok, it was Woody Allen). Just showing up is exactly what made the tutoring program so successful. When they were satisfied that we were still going to show up the next day, the youth began to look forward to seeing us. They began to take out their work without being asked. Kids still hoot from time to time, and distractions happen everyday. But discipline problems are rare. We meet each day, and complete homework in a comfortable (if slightly rowdy) atmosphere that has grown to feel like home. Older and more experienced kids help younger kids.

While we are thrilled with the program’s growth, the increased youth participation has created a demand for more student tutors. We are hoping to recruit more UMass students to participate by taking the course, arranging an internship, or volunteering. This is a great opportunity for those interested in education and youth work, but is open to students throughout the university. The course can be taken to fulfill the general education diversity requirement, on a pass/fail basis. Students wishing to do this should speak to the head of their department.

The class meets once a week, and students choose their own tutoring schedule. Internships can be arranged with consent from the head of the student’s department. Many CPCS students take the course, and repeat it the following semester by arranging to earn different competencies. Some of us have been with the program for several years. Brenda Kashi, a biology major who graduated in 2007, was part of the first crew of tutors. Asked about her experience as a tutor, she says, “The tutoring program was truly one of my favorite experiences at UMass Boston; it’s something that cannot be taught in a classroom. The kids have someone they can go to for help with schoolwork; I wish I had that opportunity when I was younger.” Tutoring has also opened up opportunities in the community for students. Antonia Moler, a CPCS student and long-time tutor, was hired this past summer to teach art at the Boys and Girls Club.

When I graduate this spring, the tutoring program will undoubtedly be the hardest thing to leave behind. Three years in the lives of kids is a long time. In three years, a kid can morph into a teenager. I can only hope that future students pick up where we left off and continue to serve youth in Harbor Point. College students have a lot to offer their communities. Likewise, the youth have a lot to teach us.

If you would like to know more, contact [email protected]. Suzanne can also be reached at (617)287-7124.