Big kids tutor little kids, and help themselves, too


They are unlikely heroes.

High school students at Wilde Lake at River Hill identified as at risk of becoming dropouts are tutoring second-graders at neighboring Clarksville Elementary School.

Those concerned say it is working splendidly. The at-risk students -- who used to cut school and get poor grades -- now look forward to solid futures. The second-graders look forward to seeing their role models every Monday.

Sue Bullock created the tutoring program in October. She is the Howard County coordinator for the state's dropout prevention program, Maryland's Tomorrow.

In 1988, Gov. William Donald Schaefer decided that 16,000 high school dropouts each year was too many. Maryland's Tomorrow started with simple goals: to get each student to graduate from high school and get a job, go to a technical school or college, or join the armed forces.

High school dropouts are not society's darlings. According to Maryland's Tomorrow, more than 90 percent of Maryland's incarcerated citizens are dropouts. More than half of the state's current welfare caseload consists of dropouts. But to Ms. Bullock, those cold numbers melt in the warmth of her American government classroom every day.

"You see things in here that you wouldn't see anywhere else," Ms. Bullock said.

You see students who were near dropouts getting A's and B's and showing up at class every day. You hear things, too, like the words of a student who once told Ms. Bullock his plan was to drop out of school and sell drugs. After success in the classroom, his plan changed.

"He said to me, 'I got to get a real plan now. I used to think I had a plan, but now that I'm doing so well in school, I have to get a real plan,' " she said.

That student is now an 11th-grader with a better attitude and better grades. He plans on going to college after high school.

Twenty at-risk students participate in the tutoring program, going to the elementary school once a week and helping the second-graders with reading and writing.

"This program helps everyone involved, the little kids and the big kids get something out of this," Ms. Bullock said.

One of the big kids is Darron Bethea. The 15-year-old was writing his life story on a Macintosh computer Monday. It's an English project.

Although the classroom was animated and loud that morning, his concentration was pure. Methodically, he shaped the essay, adding a phrase here, removing an adjective there. Ms. Bullock read it and made suggestions, tutoring his creativity.

Twenty minutes later, the tall, athletic boy sat in a tiny chair and tutored several 7-year-olds on their creative-writing projects. The small, smiling faces looked up at him as he showed them mistakes and praised their creativity.

"It was like magic when these kids came in to tutor my class the first time," said Cheri Milrad, the second-grade teacher at Clarksville Elementary.

And then she pointed to her class. The children were huddled around their high school tutors, laughing and writing and asking how to spell words like archaeology and fluorescent. They had a choice of writing a pen-pal letter to students at a North Dakota school, a biography of their tutor or, the most popular, a description of their own monster.

At a table in the middle of the room, Allison Varga discussed the merits of owning an amusement park with a friend while working on her monster: Blockhead.

"Ten eyes and green teeth," she said, and then declared that Hershey Park would be a far better investment than Kings Dominion.

"The tutors help us to learn," she said with a blush. "They make it fun."

She may not know it, but the older students say the same of her and her classmates.

"This gives us a chance to be appreciated, those kids miss us when we're not there," said Tarkese McDonald, an 18-year-old senior who wants to be an accountant or a teacher. He thanks the Maryland's Tomorrow program for giving him the chance.

Now in its seventh year, the program costs about $8.5 million and reaches more than 7,700 high school students and recent graduates.

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