Enrichment effort affordable, successful

Columbia tutor program relies mostly on volunteers

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.

"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.

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. 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. 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.

Sy Pilz, whose son Christopher works with a tutor, 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 frequently, and parent workshops and meetings are scheduled through the year.

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 a role model or help ease transitions to new grade levels or schools, said Charles Langford Jr., a board member who has been involved with the program since its founding.

The program reports sharp improvement in participants' grades, although program director Alan Schott says the gains depend on each student's willingness to work.

Pilz emphatically approves.

Christopher has "excelled 150 percent at everything" since joining the program, Pilz said. "He wouldn't pick up a book. Now he reads two a day. It's the best program on Earth."

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