Young tutors aid struggling classmates


Thione Bumberry, a first-grader at Elmer A. Henderson Elementary School, worked arithmetic problems under the watchful eye of his tutor, Tameka Mobley, a fifth-grade honor student who has been helping him under a pilot program at the East Baltimore school.

"The hardest part is getting him to understand," said Tameka, sounding like a weary elementary schoolteacher. "He told me math was difficult, but now he likes to do it. He's going to be all right."

When the school year ends next week, Thione and 11 other first-graders who had been in danger of failing without peer tutoring will instead be able to look forward to entering second grade in September.

Their tutors are fifth-grade honor students, like Tameka, who have volunteered to help younger schoolmates with reading and arithmetic as part of the Pupils Assisting in the Learning of Students -- PALS.

Principal Orrester Shaw Jr. said his staff devised the piloprogram last November after teachers identified the 12 first-graders as lagging academically and socially.

These youngsters were lacking individual attention at home awell as at school, he said.

Part of the problem is classrooms crowded with as many as 35 children, where teachers say too much of their time is spent with either the best students or the most disruptive.

At home, many students must vie with siblings for the attention of single mothers. Most of the mothers of the 12 PAL students are high school dropouts who have little confidence in their ability to help their children with schoolwork, said Harriet Kravetz, a teacher-tutor at the 650-student school on North Wolfe Street.

In the surrounding working-class neighborhood, children are exposed to many negative influences, including drug abuse and violence.

"We look at all the negativity around us," said Mr. Shaw. "We are in the trenches. We realize that we've got to do something to provide that extra lift."

With no money to hire additional staff or pay overtime, Mr. Shaw and his staff enlisted a dozen enthusiastic fifth-grade honor students to tutor the first-graders.

The tutors worked five days a week with their younger charges for 20 minutes before school and during lunch hours.

"The key is not just enjoyment, but confidence and having someone to relate to," Mrs. Kravetz said. "Sometimes teachers have so many children that they often don't have the time to give them enough individual attention. It's nice to have a big brother ,, or big sister . . . to read to or study with," she said.

These are students that needed repetition and a lot of positive reinforcement," said Assistant Principal Jamie M. Brown. "When we got them together for the first time, it was like the room lit up. They couldn't wait to start the day."

The results have been encouraging, she said.

All of the students have shown progress in completing homework and classroom work, Mr. Shaw said. All will enter second grade in September, he said, which is gratifying

news for tutors and pupils alike.

"It makes me feel good," said 6-year-old DeMarco Brown. "I like to read now because it's fun."

His tutor, 10-year-old Omar Robinson, said, "I like to be down here helping them to do better so they can pass into the second grade."

Mrs. Brown said the honor students have taken their tutoring seriously, even though many of them are involved in extracurricular activities and often as hard-pressed as actual teachers to manage their time.

One of the fifth-graders dropped out of the program when his own grades began to suffer as he devoted time to tutoring. Others became so enthusiastic they gave up their lunch periods and asked for permission to teach their pupils at home.

"Not only has there been progress in terms of student achievement, but it has generated camaraderie," said Mrs. Brown. "They look at the fifth-graders as big sisters and big brothers, which strengthens school spirit."

"They're getting a lot of pride and good feeling with what they're doing," said first-grade teacher Nadell B. Gilyard. "They brag about all that they have done and what they've accomplished."

Theresa Fossett said the program has changed her 6-year-old daughter, Chanel Fallon. "Before the program, Chanel didn't want to come to school at all," said Ms. Fossett.

"She didn't like math. Her grades were low at the beginning; now they're fine. Now she loves math. Without the program, I think she'd be falling behind and would be doing this grade over again. And me, I'd be going crazy."

Caroline Roberson's 6-year-old daughter, Shaemiah Johnson, has also rediscovered her enthusiasm for learning.

"She always liked to go to school," said Ms. Roberson. "But when she comes home now, all she wants to do is her homework and talk about what she's learned."

The program has attracted attention from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who lauded it recently at a meeting of city school principals. Two principals have asked about establishing a PALS program at their schools.

At Henderson, the program will be expanded next year to abou 70 students, including second-graders.

Mr. Shaw and teachers pointed to the arrest last month of a Henderson student, who was nabbed by police a few blocks from the school with five vials of cocaine and $160, as evidence that the program is needed.

The 11-year-old, who was repeating the fourth grade, had behavior problems that may have resulted from academic deficiencies, Mr. Shaw said.

"This will prevent that from happening," he said. "A lot of this behavior will happen from kids falling behind in the classroom."

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