About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 20, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 8
Giving Kids a Boost

On a nice October afternoon, JHU students and their tutees work one-on-one at Levering Plaza. Young Song, foreground, directs the Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project, founded 50 years ago by Chaplain Chester Wickwire.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

For 50 years, the Tutorial Project has helped keep Baltimore youth on track

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Jasmine Ainetchian had never tutored anyone before she joined the Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project, the after-school program that provides academic support for Baltimore City elementary school students.

Through this program, the longest-running service of its kind in the city, children are paired with Johns Hopkins undergraduates like Ainetchian to receive one-on-one help in reading, math and geography.

Ainetchian's first tutee was a fifth-grade boy having trouble with math; in particular, multiplication and fractions. Each session, the two would take tiny steps forward and sometimes suffer a step back. She recalls that it was a struggle for them both.

"I had to come up with so many different ways of teaching fractions — how to recognize them and relate them to things in real life — I probably drove him crazy with fractions," said Ainetchian, a senior public health studies major who joined the Tutorial Project her freshman year.

Then, one day, it clicked.

"What I think helped was giving him confidence," she said. "I told him, it's easy to get frustrated sometimes — I do, too — and it's OK if you don't get it right now. We'll keep working on it until we get it right."

Ainetchian, who is now a student director of the JHU Tutorial Project, said that she'll never forget that experience. "Through this program you can form a special bond with a child that nobody else can have," she said. "They latch onto you, and you feel really important. You're having an impact, as small as it might be, and made something good happen."

For 50 years now, good things have been happening for thousands of such students in need of a little academic assistance.

The JHU Tutorial Project will celebrate its anniversary at a cocktail reception on Saturday evening in Homewood's Glass Pavilion. The invitation-only event will welcome back many program alumni and feature a tribute to Rev. Chester "Chet" Wickwire, founder of the Tutorial Project, who passed away on Aug. 31 at the age of 94.

Wickwire, the university's longtime chaplain, started the project in 1958, during the height of the civil rights movement. He wanted Johns Hopkins students, most of whom were male and white, to interact with the city's black families. He organized groups from black and white churches to drive Johns Hopkins students into black neighborhoods, where they would tutor high school students in their homes.

In the mid-1960s, Wickwire decided that at-risk students needed early intervention, and the program changed its mission to serve elementary school students, who were bused from the schools to the Homewood campus. The program today targets children in grades 1 through 5 who are behind their grade level and need a push in the right direction. At one time, it had more than 300 tutors — faculty members and nonaffiliates as well as students.

The program originally fell under the auspices of the Chaplain's Office and now operates through the university's Center for Social Concern, led by Bill Tiefenwerth. Tiefenwerth, who served under Wickwire as assistant to the chaplain, said that the Tutorial Project is perhaps Wickwire's greatest legacy.

"Chet wanted to level the playing field," Tiefenwerth said. "He saw under-resourced families and the rich resources that the university had and wanted to do something positive. He certainly did."

Each semester, roughly 120 Baltimore students work one-on-one with trained Johns Hopkins tutors after school, two afternoons a week, for a 10-week period. The university students, all of whom are undergraduates and volunteers, spend an hour and a half each session with their charges.

The program runs Monday through Thursday. Each day at 4:30 p.m. a yellow bus rolls up behind Levering Hall loaded up with students. Other students arrive by car, dropped off by their parents or guardians.

First the students get refueled, courtesy of some PB&J sandwiches, apple juice and graham crackers. Then the work begins. The tutors plan an hour's worth of activities and educational games that are specifically selected to meet each child's needs, based on assessments conducted at the beginning of the semester. The pairs work on areas that need strengthening, whether it's the alphabet, multiplication tables, fractions, spelling, homonyms or something else. One day they'll read a Junie B. Jones book, for example, and the next, do long division.

The session ends with playtime, whether it's board games, jump roping or a little game of football on the quad. Then it's back on the bus for the trip home.

The location of the sessions often depends on the weather, room availability and mood of the student and tutor. On a sunny day, the two might move outside the Center for Social Concern's offices to work on a bench or piece of grass. If quiet time is needed, they might find an empty conference room. On many days, Levering Hall's lobby will do just fine.

The children and tutors also have access to the Center for Social Concern's computer lab and children's library. Tutors are trained and supported throughout the semester by a full-time professional educator, with additional student staff overseeing the progress of each tutor-tutee pair.

A key to the program's effectiveness over the years is the match process, said Young Song, who became the project's director last September.

After a child enrolls in the program, a student organizer will travel to his or her home two to three weeks before the tutorial starts to interview the student and perform an assessment. The goal is to get to know the individual and what he or she needs to work on.

"They'll get to know the child's personality and struggles," Song said. "Maybe the student is really quiet and shy, or likes sports, or a particular TV show."

Based on the assessment, the student organizer writes up a summary detailing the child's strengths and weaknesses. With this information in hand, the project's organizers can identify tutors who match up well.

"Perhaps the child responds well to a male figure, or needs someone strong in math," she said. "We do our best. Sometimes it works and we hit it just right, and sometimes it doesn't and we need to switch tutors. I think we have more hits than misses."

Song said that the individual tutoring sessions are goal-oriented, with expectations not placed too high.

"Maybe a student can't do addition of two-digit numbers, or know how to group, so we'll just focus on that," she said. "If they exceed that goal, that is fantastic and we'll move them up gradually. You have to keep in mind that they are here in the first place because they can't work at the grade level they are currently in, so we need to take a step back and deal with basic concepts."

With such a long track record of success, the JHU Tutorial Project has built strong relationships with several area schools that provide a steady stream of students. Many parents and teachers found out about the program, which rarely markets itself, through word of mouth.

Song said that several of the program's participants are the younger siblings and sons and daughters of Tutorial Project alumni.

"It has become a family," she said.

Tiefenwerth said that volunteering for the Tutorial Project has become almost a rite of passage for Johns Hopkins undergraduates. Each semester, the project receives scores of new applications, sometimes more than it needs. He said that it's heartening to see so many undergraduates give up their free time for the program.

Ainetchian said that, in her case, she didn't want to fall into the trap of letting school become her life.

"When you're in college, it's easy to focus on academics and lose sight of everything else," she said. "I didn't want to hole myself up at a library all the time. I got involved with the program because I wanted to do something that I thought was important. Those hours twice a week that I spend with these kids are just so totally different from whatever else I'm doing. It's an escape to laugh, learn and play with these kids."

Song said that the student mentors often form very strong relationships with their tutees.

"Our students become positive role models for these kids. They'll say that 'I want to be a college student just like you,' and the [tutors] tell them if you work hard enough, you can come here, or whatever college you want," she said.

Tiefenwerth said that tutoring the students on campus is a vital ingredient to the whole process. "The hidden value added is that we introduce them to what college life is like, to demystify it and show its rewards," he said.

For more information on the Tutorial Project, go to: or call 410-516-7673.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 |