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The Tutor Period

The Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project pairs university students looking to do something worthwhile with kids looking for a hand. Lessons in reading and writing are just the beginning.

By Maria Blackburn
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

Haley Owens is small and dainty. Put her in a room filled with kids and you might not even be able to hear her soft, sweet voice. "I'm a little shy," she explains, twisting a lock of her long, sandy brown hair around her finger. But ask Haley about the book she's reading, Scrambled Eggs and Spider Legs, or her kitten, Luna, and she twitters like a bird. Ask her about school, and she can hardly keep from chattering on. "I love second grade," she says excitedly. "My mother says it's hard, but I think it's a piece of cake."

School didn't always come so easy for Haley. In first grade, she fell behind in her studies and grew frustrated about learning, according to her mother, Debbie Hawks. "She's hard on herself, and she just struggled," Hawks says. "Haley couldn't read."

Hawks enrolled her daughter in a new school with a different curriculum, which helped. She also signed Haley up to work with a private tutor for four hours a week through the Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project. For three semesters, Haley has worked with neuroscience major Danielle Spengler to improve her skills in phonics, addition, and subtraction. She's even become a confident reader. "If she doesn't know a word, she now knows how to sound it out," Spengler says. "She doesn't get frustrated and give up like she used to."

Perhaps most importantly, the two have formed a friendship, one that inspires Haley to stick to her studies. "Haley just loves that girl so much," Hawks says. "When she comes here, she knows that Dani is here specifically for her. She just feels special."

Haley says that she's going to study hard and go to college because she wants to be a doctor — "like Dani." She wants to be an orthodontist. "When we're both doctors," she tells her tutor, "I'm going to give you your dental work for free."

It's a simple idea. Take 120 bright Johns Hopkins undergraduates yearning to do something and pair them with 120 elementary school kids who need help in reading and math. Have the students work together for two afternoons a week on multiplication and long division, homonyms and spelling words, writing essays and reading books. Throw in a couple extra minutes for scarfing PB&J sandwiches and playing twilight football on the plaza outside Levering Hall. That's the Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project.

With Danielle Spengler's help, second-grader Haley Owens has become a confident reader.

Monday through Thursday at 4:30 p.m., a yellow school bus pulls up to Levering Hall, and within minutes the Center for Social Concern — a cramped second-floor space filled with books and educational games — teems with pairs of tutors and children laughing, talking, and learning. Some 5,000 children have worked with Hopkins tutors since the program's founding in 1958.

It's eerily quiet in the basement of Gilman Hall in the late afternoon. Footsteps echo in the hallways when there are no classes in session to absorb the sound. Duck inside an empty-looking classroom late one Tuesday afternoon, however, and you might find Ingram Scroggins III and Andrew Gaddis working some of Ingram's fourth-grade spelling words into sentences. Ingram, who is 9, likes to talk. In a loud, animated voice he'll tell you that Gaddis, his tutor for the last two years, is cool because he has a cell phone and that he, Ingram, is cool, too, because he has Gaddis' cell phone number. He'll also tell you what they have in common: "We both like blue. We like games. We like Vans" [sneakers].

Ingram turns his attention back to a list of spelling words and reads off the next one. "Firm," he says. He looks puzzled. "What does that mean?"

"It means strong or solid, like this table here," Gaddis tells him. "Show me how you use it in a sentence."

Ingram looks at Gaddis and promptly changes the subject. "Andrew is not going to tell you the answers," he says. "You have to work."

"Ingram is very smart and good at what he does," explains Gaddis, a sophomore neuroscience major from Long Island. "He's really funny. But work is often the last thing on his mind." Gaddis keeps his pupil focused on reading and math by making a game out of their lessons. Some days he brings a stopwatch and challenges Ingram to work against the clock. Other days they read together as a reward for Ingram's doing his work. "There's a very fine line between being friends with him and getting work done," says Gaddis.

"Do you have a sentence yet?" he asks Ingram.

Nope. It seems Ingram is busy talking. "People say I'm intelligent," he says. "They say I've got a sense of humor." He waits a minute. "They say I have a firm punch." He catches Gaddis' eye and they laugh.

The Tutorial Project is targeted at children in grades 1 through 5 who are in the middle of the pack — behind their grade level in reading and math but not eligible for special education services. They are tested on their math and reading skills at the beginning of the semester, and again after 10 weeks of tutoring. If this were a Hollywood movie, they would be reading several grade levels ahead after working with a tutor one-on-one for an entire semester. But it's not. After a session of tutoring, the children in the program have gained on average three months of improvement in reading and math.

Mr. Oliver was like a big brother to me," Jack Young says of his tutor. "It made all the difference in the world." Test scores hardly tell the whole story, says Birju Patel, a junior physics major from San Antonio who helps conduct the testing. "So much of what we do isn't just academics," he says. "We're not just a tutoring group. We mentor kids. When they come here, we're not just asking them whether they have mastered this math skill or can read this book. It's about them coming here to this historic campus and having this experience."

Back in 1958 when Chester Wickwire started the Tutorial Project, he envisioned it as a way to invite African-American kids from Baltimore onto campus to interact with Hopkins students. The campus was insular, he says, and he wanted to open it up. Wickwire, who was Hopkins' chaplain at the time, was deeply involved in the civil rights movement nationally and in Baltimore. He understood that the sight of African-American children frolicking on the campus of a university that did not yet admit African-Americans would turn heads, and he was fine with that.

"Some of the faculty really objected to us doing the tutoring, especially to us bringing the kids on campus," says Wickwire, who is now in his 90s. "They called us communist."

Wickwire's magnetism drew Hopkins students as well as students from area high schools and colleges to tutor. People referred to them as "Chet's Army" and "Chet's Boys."

Like his tutor, Andrew Gaddis, 9-year-old Ingram Scroggins says he likes the color blue, games, and Vans."

"It was a very white, very male campus, where people tended to be wrapped up in their studies," says James Casey, A&S '74, who worked in the Tutorial Project as a tutor while he was an undergraduate, then became its paid director for a few years after graduating. "I was just looking to do something worthwhile."

For some of Casey's young students from Baltimore City, just setting foot on the Homewood campus was a revelation. "We're talking about kids who have a very small radius," he says. "They might not have been outside a 10-square-block area in their neighborhood, other than a trip to see an aunt or a grandmother. There was the size of the buildings [on campus], the open space, and the fact that this was a world where there were more kids than adults."

Bernard C. "Jack" Young was in fourth or fifth grade in the late 1960s when he began working with a Hopkins tutor he called Mr. Oliver. From him he learned study skills and how to tackle difficult math problems, but he also learned about a world outside his neighborhood. After their tutoring sessions, Oliver would load him and two of his brothers into his Volkswagon, and they'd head to markets, museums, and college campuses around the city. "People treat you good and that makes a difference in your life," says Young, now a radiology clerical manager and a member of the Baltimore City Council. "Mr. Oliver was like a big brother to me — someone who took an interest in sharing what he had learned with me. It made all the difference in the world."

You might think that after almost 50 years the Tutorial Project would have lost some of its cachet among Hopkins students. The idealistic '60s and '70s are long over. Wickwire retired from the university in 1984, and many of today's students have never met the dynamic chaplain who inspired so many young people to get involved in the world beyond the Homewood campus. Besides, the Tutorial Project is no longer the only volunteer opportunity at Hopkins that links students with the greater Baltimore community. There are now more than 45 student service groups working out of the Center for Social Concern, a dozen of which are tutoring or mentoring programs.

Yet the Tutorial Project perks along with more than 100 tutors each semester, inspiring a loyalty among the students who volunteer. Last year, members of the Class of 2005 at Homewood could choose to contribute to one of four causes, including the Tutorial Project, as part of the Senior Class Gift. Tutorial Project was by far the most popular choice of charities that shared the $10,000 gift.

"The crux of the Tutorial Project is the personal engagement between a tutor and a tutee," says Matthew Boulay, A&S '93, '98 (MA), a former tutor who founded Teach Baltimore as a Hopkins senior. "In all settings that's what makes education successful."

Hopkins students who are committed to the Tutorial Project run many of the day-to-day aspects. Student organizers go to the children's homes, meet their families, and talk to the parents about their child's progress. They make the tutoring pairs, matching personalities and interests. They ride the bus with the kids and make the sandwiches for snacks. And they check in with tutoring pairs on their progress and share teaching tools, motivational tips, and advice.

Spengler, Haley's tutor and a Hopkins junior, says the opportunity to work one-on-one with the same student over a number of semesters was one of the main draws to her volunteering with the Tutorial Project.

"I really like the fact that you can make a noticeable difference in these kids' lives," Spengler says. "It's something concrete, something you can see. I've worked with Haley for over a year, and the changes she has gone through have been just amazing. I don't take credit for all of it, but I feel like I might have had something to do with it, and that's really rewarding."

Ten days or 10 years after tutoring, many volunteers say it's an experience they'll never forget. Some learn through tutoring that they want to become teachers. Others become committed to working for social justice and to combating urban poverty. Some tutors form friendships with their students that last a lifetime.

"When a kid runs over to you and says, 'Look at what I learned today,' the look on that kid's face is priceless," says Birju Patel.

"Many times the tutors learn as much or more than the students," says David Fishkin, A&S '76, Ed '79 (MEd). As an organizer, Fishkin was introduced to William Johnson, an energetic 6-year-old who had trouble sitting still but was so persuasive that he was able to get all of his brothers and sisters into the Tutorial Project and to have the program create an additional bus stop near his home. Thirty years later, Fishkin and Johnson are still friends and talk at least once a week. "There was a synergy between us," says Fishkin, an attorney in the Baltimore Public Defender's office. "From William I learned about the tremendous growth potential that kids and people have. I learned about a lot of the challenges that kids from poor minority backgrounds face. I learned that I could be a mentor and try and inspire someone to get excited about learning."

Eric Anderson and Vinny DeMarco, A&S '79, '81 (MA), didn't start out as friends. Eric, now 32, was 11 when the two started working together through the Tutorial Project. DeMarco struggled to find a way to reach him. "We did not get along," says DeMarco, who is currently president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative. "Everything I said to try to engage him, he just gave me a blank stare." Then DeMarco played Eric a tape of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello doing "Who's on First?" Eric loved it. "The glum kid became bubbly," DeMarco says. "From then we could talk about everything."

DeMarco and Eric ate pizza, went to movies and played chess, went on day trips to Harper's Ferry and out for Chinese food. They kept in touch as Eric went on to Baltimore City College High School. Then, in 10th grade, Eric had a brain aneurism and almost died. He was in the hospital for three months, and DeMarco often joined Eric's mother, Ruth, at his bedside.

"Vinny has this genuine sense of caring for me," Anderson says. "Our relationship strengthened as a result of me going into the hospital." Anderson went on to finish high school, graduate from college and earn an MBA, and is now a father of three. He tutors, too. "It's a great friendship," he says. "Had it not been for the Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project, I don't think I'd be where I am in my life today."

DeMarco feels the same way. "We all live on a tightrope," he says. "Any of us could have things go wrong with our work, with our lives. What I learned from Eric is that the old adage 'keep hope alive' is really true."

Finding the money to keep the Tutorial Project going for the last 50 years has been a constant challenge. It costs $100,000 a year to run. Donations cover only a fraction of that. Snacks are largely donated. Many of the books in the center's library have been donated, too. But there's the cost of paying the program director and the two student directors. The balance of the budget is usually covered by Hopkins, but the amount of university support isn't a given, director Ann Forno says. "Even with that Hopkins money, making our budget is never guaranteed."

The bus alone comes with a $20,000-a-year price tag. At one time, the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development paid for the bus and the director's salary with federal funds. But that source dried up a few years back when the government changed the rules about how that funding could be used. Now finding the money to pay for the bus is a regular problem, says Bill Tiefenwerth, director of the Center for Social Concern. "I met someone who was head of the Tutorial Project in 1973, and we were talking about tensions we had in running the program," says Tiefenwerth, who has worked in Homewood's Office of Student Affairs since 1979. "I mentioned to him how today we struggle to pay for the bus. He told me they had the same problem back then."

Despite such problems, the program succeeds through the determination of the students who run it. "I'd rather spend time here than working on academics," says Patel, who has juggled his class schedule to volunteer for the last three years. "You hang out with these kids. You tutor these kids. You get to see them play. You get to interact with them. And at the end of the day you feel involved, which is the most important way for a volunteer to feel. When a kid runs over to you and says, 'Look at what I learned today,' the look on that kid's face is priceless. These are smiles to die for."

"This program is like getting a tattoo," says Forno. "It's printed on you forever."

At 5:45 p.m. each evening the kids close their books and put their pencils away. The Center for Social Concern is filled with the sound of zipping coats and the swoosh of nylon backpacks being loaded onto shoulders. Tutoring is over for the day.

But the Tutoring Project doesn't officially end for another 15 minutes. Outside Levering, playtime is just getting under way. Kids sprawl on the brick plaza and draw with sidewalk chalk. Others toss glow-in-the-dark playground balls to their tutors, and jump rope. There is the sound of laughter and squealing, of happy children playing.

Tiefenwerth sees them at play as he's leaving his office and he can't help but smile at the sight. "This is Chester's vision — a freedom for families to come and go across the campus," he says. "He was pretty prophetic."

Maria Blackburn is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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