Sometimes, they offer help solving math problems, or writing sentences, or forming short paragraphs.
Yet often, the adults of A-OK Mentoring-Tutoring of Columbia help Howard County students unlock their potential simply by giving an hour a week of attention.
"The focus of our intervention is building a strong, encouraging relationship, where the child feels valued and important. That's the first big step," said Chaya Kaplan, executive director of the volunteer nonprofit, which partners with the school system to enhance students' academic and social development.
"We coach volunteers in the approach 'Look for the positive,' " she said.
A-OK links mentor-tutors with elementary and middle school students in Columbia for an hour a week — during school hours, after school or during summer. The group recently completed its summer session and is preparing for the coming school year, which is less than two weeks away.
The organization, which stands for "Assist Our Kids," was launched by Kaplan and Joseph Willmott, the current treasurer, in 2003 at Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, working with about a half-dozen volunteers at few schools.
Last year, Kaplan said, the organization had 95 mentor-tutors who worked with more than 200 students. The mentor-tutors come from various backgrounds and professions — some are retirees; others are in their 20s.
A-OK works with Howard County school staffers to match students with mentor-tutors. The organization's mentors have worked with students from more than a dozen elementary schools and three middle schools in Columbia, said Kaplan, a former pediatric social worker at the Kennedy Krieger Institute who taught classes for a Howard County parenting support group.
"What sets them apart from other organizations is the one-on-one relationship that their mentors develop with our students," said Mary Schiller, manager of the county school system's partnerships office. "The students benefit from the mentors' attention to their specific needs and situations, and it's not uncommon for an A-OK mentor to follow a student from elementary school into middle school, and then they can continue on as the relationship warrants."
Among the organization's mentor-tutors is Heather Kirk-Davidoff of Columbia, 47, a minister at Kittamaqundi Community Church in Columbia. She has been a mentor-tutor to a fourth-grade girl at Stevens Forest Elementary School, where her own children once benefited from a mentor as well.
"Early on we decided that she could bring a couple of friends with her," said Kirk-Davidoff of the girl she mentored "Then it sort of became a club that was in great demand. It was sort of a waiting list.
"I probably met with about half the girls in fourth grade at Stevens Forest Elementary," Kirk-Davidoff said, noting that the young student became more social as she worked with Kirk-Davidoff and brought friends to her sessions.
"It was often the highlight of my week," Kirk-Davidoff said. "It was a chance for me to play. We spent a lot of time dancing around my room and playing music on my iPod. It gave me a chance to see a little girl basically wake up and start to shine."
Kaplan said she brings in new volunteers each year and last year had an 84 percent retention rate. She said some of the children, who come from various backgrounds, can present challenges but still show the ability to succeed and thrive.
"Some kids have attention problems, impulse problems, so they don't get much positive feedback in school," Kaplan said. "They're the kids who stand up and the teacher says, 'Sit down.' I've seen that in schools a lot.
"What a mentor offers is an easier situation to cooperate with and lots of positive feedback. We don't pretend. We don't say, 'Oh, that's really nice.' We say, 'I see you working hard. I see you thinking about your answer before you give it. I see you paying attention to what we're doing. Isn't that terrific?' That's how you learn."