Affordable enrichment

Education: A Columbia-based program matches children from second through 12th grade with mostly volunteer tutors.

November 16, 1999|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Jennifer Yezek, a graduate student at Michigan State University, came home to Columbia to work on her thesis, but spends Tuesday evenings at a small desk at Wilde Lake Elementary School helping 9-year-old Jade Martin with her homework.

The pretzels and Oreo cookies aren't Jade's favorite part of the tutoring sessions, as Yezek once thought. It's "the learning," Jade says confidently.

They are participants in the Columbia-based Youth Enrichment Program, which matches children from second through 12th grade with mostly volunteer tutors. The program asks for donations of $15 to $50 a month, making it accessible to children whose parents might not be able to afford private tutoring fees of $25 to $40 an hour.

"It's extremely affordable compared to other programs," said Angela Martin, who wants her daughter, a fifth-grader at Hollifield Station Elementary School, to reinforce her skills.

The program helps fill gaps in generally affluent Howard County -- known for the excellent reputation of its public school system.

"Some kids, even in a [school] system as good as ours, need some additional help," said Manus O'Donnell, director of the Howard County Department of Citizen Services, which helps fund the program. When the program started, he said, other tutoring resources were offered in the county, but the Youth Enrichment Program provided volunteers who were consistently available.

Students and tutors meet at Wilde Lake Elementary on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and at Oakland Mills Middle School on Mondays and Wednesdays.

On a recent Tuesday at Wilde Lake, Yezek and Jade worked on spelling while Wilde Lake High School 11th-grader Kenyarna Webb -- who may pursue a career in medicine -- tackled math equations with Danying Zhu, a dental student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The program's executive director, Brenda Zeigler-Riley, helped Bryant Woods Elementary School fourth-grader Husani Holder write a letter to his regular tutor, who was recovering from heart bypass surgery. Other pairs worked on reading, writing, social studies and math.

The low cost and one-on-one tutoring have been hallmarks of the program since its founder, Shirley Brown, a psychologist and college professor, moved the program from Long Reach Church of God to obtain county funding. Thirteen years later, five board members and two staff members are continuing the effort. Brown died last year.

"She was the driving force," said Charles Langford Jr., a board member who has been involved with the program since its founding. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen."

The volunteer board is working to ensure that the program will continue, by seeking new corporate and foundation funding and more public donations.

The program has reintroduced enrichment activities, such as field trips to museums and historical sites, after funding cuts temporarily stopped them. In September, it added a Saturday tutoring session.

Giving back to the community

A few tutors receive minimum wage for their work, but most donate their time because they enjoy it and want to help young people.

Yezek, who studies forensic science, used to tutor as a way to get out of the lab at Michigan State University and decided to continue while she is in Columbia.

"I love kids. I'm from a big family," said Yezek.

Tutor J. L. Hurley, who has several part-time education-related jobs, studied early childhood development and has teaching experience. She drew on her background to create a game in which Christopher Pilz, a sixth-grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School, matched addition and multiplication flashcards.

"It's fun to see different kids," she said, particularly those who leave the program with better grades.

Zhu, of Dorsey's Search, tutors because she wants to give something back to the community.

"It's really important to help [students] when they are young," she said, explaining that college students she has tutored could trace their difficulties with science to elementary school math.

Christopher's father, Sy Pilz, an executive producer with Winning Edge Communication, is especially pleased with the way volunteers go the extra mile. Tutors take time to talk to the schools to find out what students need to excel, he said.

Parental involvement is required. Informal conferences take place whenever parents stop by, and parent workshops and meetings are scheduled through the year.

More than academics

O'Donnell, the Citizen Services director, said the program also "targets not just academics, but social and cultural growth."

Students build relationships with tutors who can offer friendship, serve as role models or help ease transitions to new grade levels or schools, said Langford, an affirmative-action specialist at the American Red Cross.

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