Tutors gain much from their charges Lessons: Taking part in the Johns Hopkins University's 40-year-old tutoring program "is the most meaningful thing I do at Hopkins," one student says.

November 22, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

It's a Monday afternoon on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University, a time when most students are heading to the library to study, to chemistry labs to work, to their dorm rooms to relax.

But in Levering Hall, about 50 undergraduates are making up lesson plans for the elementary school pupils who will soon arrive by bus and car. They are participants in the school's tutoring program, which celebrated its 40th anniversary with a -- party Thursday.

As the children pile off the bus, their enthusiasm conquers the studied nonchalance of the tutors' college-age pose. Smiles and hugs abound. Soon they are paired off for an hour of one-on-one tutoring that can range from reading compound words to writing sentences, playing a visual memory game to learning to use the Internet.

"When I came here, I wanted this to be like the reading clinic at Towson State, where I got my master's degree," said Weslie Wornum, who has been directing the program since 1990. "But I learned that it's something else."

The Hopkins tutoring program has evolved into a melange -- some teaching, some mentoring, some friendships -- that probably has as much, if not more, effect on the tutors as on those they are tutoring.

"This is the most meaningful thing I do at Hopkins," said Rachel Siegel, a 20-year-old junior who is majoring in writing and political science. "It's really a great experience working with the kids."

Siegel says that because of her tutoring experience, she is considering delaying a planned career in journalism to spend a few years with Teach America, a program that puts recent graduates in classrooms as teachers.

Such a story is not uncommon in the program's 40-year history. Take Chris Beach, who received conscientious-objector draft status after he graduated from Hopkins in 1971. Looking for a job that would qualify as alternative service, he called up school chaplain Chester Wickwire and was hired as head of the tutoring program.

Wickwire had founded the program to tutor inmates at the Maryland Penitentiary in 1958, not long after he arrived to take over the Hopkins campus YMCA.

The program soon turned to schoolchildren, gathering momentum during the civil rights and social awareness days of the 1960s until it was the central clearinghouse for citywide tutoring programs. By the time Beach got there, it was an unwieldy hybrid, getting tutors from a wide variety of schools who would work with hundreds of children on various days in different locales.

Beach pared it to 100 students who would go to Hopkins twice a week in two batches -- 50 on Mondays and Wednesdays and another 50 on Tuesdays and Thursdays -- for one-on-one sessions with a like number of tutors.

The structure Beach set up is in place a quarter-century later. Students get basic training in a phonics-based reading program and a math program. They are matched with a pupil and can stay with that youngster for several years.

The program's only advertising is word-of-mouth, but Wornum says it has a waiting list. Somehow, despite Hopkins schedules that put many science labs in the late afternoon, she comes up with the 100 tutors each semester.

"I know what the tutoring program did for me. It turned my life on its head," said Beach -- a psychotherapist in Portland, Maine -- of his 18 months working there. "After I left it, I went to Africa and built a school. I would never have done that if I hadn't gotten involved with tutoring."

Robert Dickens, 59, got involved with the original program, tutoring at the Maryland Penitentiary. "French, of all things," he said over the phone from Ellsworth, Maine, where he runs a community school.

"I don't know why they wanted to take French, probably because they got out of their cells for a while," he said. "All I know is that there was a guard at the door and I was more afraid of him than any of the inmates.

"At Hopkins, you could live in the rarefied air and have very little to do with the real world. Programs like this were like a breath of fresh air," he said. "My whole encounter with Chester Wickwire and the YMCA was really a major experience in my life."

Program organizers say they know more about what tutoring did for the tutors than the students because follow-up work has never been done. Wornum said a tracking program is being put '' in place, in part because such evaluations are needed to attract grants. The program runs on a patchwork of city grants (mainly for transportation), donations and Hopkins funds.

Most of the tutors meet their students in an upstairs room at Levering Hall that in a previous life was a coffeehouse known as Chester's Place, after Wickwire. Now, 10 computers -- given to the program by an anonymous donor -- line the walls, while tables and chairs fill the room.

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