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Saturday Tutoring Program at Church of the Covenant begins 21st year

Despite the early hour, Cleveland’s Presbyterian Church of the Covenant attracted more than a hundred volunteers from CWRU and the greater Cleveland community this past Saturday, when it held its annual training session for new volunteer tutors. The training will prepare volunteers for participation in the church’s weekly Saturday Tutoring Program, which has helped hundreds of young people over the course of its twenty-year history.

“I volunteer because it’s an easy way to make a difference,” said tutor Kyle Berkowitz, who is also in his third year at CWRU. “It’s a valuable experience for the tutor to interact with the students and take a little piece of them home as well.”

The program runs from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on most Saturday mornings and is often constituted by a farrago of CWRU students, community volunteers, and students in grades 1-12. It strives to provide one-on-one tutoring in a variety of academic subjects, including mathematics, reading, the sciences, and even test preparation for the Ohio graduation exams.

According to Berkowitz, the specialized attention each student receives is one of the program’s most valuable assets. “There aren’t many other opportunities in life where another person is completely focused on you,” he said. “The one-on-one experience is special for those being tutored becuse it isn’t something that people experience often. It feels good to be the center of attention for a little bit each week.”

Placing the individual student at the “center of attention” has been a primary goal of the program since its inception in 1990, but a sudden rise in popularity threatened that goal when the church began receiving more students than it was able to provide individualized attention for. This, say co-directors Linda Wilson and Louise Steele, is why CWRU volunteers continue to be a “very important” part of the program.

“CWRU volunteers ‘came to the rescue’ in the 1990s,” they explained. “When the Saturday Tutoring Program’s student population expanded, we suddenly had more children than Church of the Covenant tutors. Today, the majority of volunteers (about 75 percent) are still CWRU students, who bring both compassion and strong academic skills. CWRU students are also role models, who help the children realize that they can do well in school and still be ‘cool.'”

But feeling ‘cool’ can be difficult for the young students, who typically attend the program because they’ve been struggling with a particular subject. “When students come into the church building for the first time, it can be a little intimidating. They don’t know anyone yet, and they need to admit they are having some difficulty in school,” said Steele.

One-on-one interaction with college students helps with these initial fears, but it is also important to focus on the students’ academic strengths–contrary to modern myths about inner-city schoolchildren, the students seeking help at the Church of the Covenant are “intelligent, talented, and motivated.”

“The director, Linda Wilson, doesn’t start off by focusing on what they cannot do well. She says, ‘Tell me, what is your best, best, best subject?’ Their fears melt away, and they begin to see tutoring as a place with caring people who will help them learn,” said Steele.

More often than not, the participating CWRU volunteers learn as much from their charges as they teach. “Very rarely do college students have opportunities to work so closely with children from the community,” said Catherine Ko, a senior at CWRU and a Saturday volunteer. According to Ko, her time with the younger students provides “a nice contrast to the rest of my week” and, presumably, her life on campus.

“We say that The Saturday Tutoring Program sessions have an atmosphere of mutual learning and respect because the tutors also learn many valuable skills and lessons,” said Steele and Wilson. “They learn how to explain their thought processes clearly so that students can understand how to tackle problems. The tutors also learn to relate to the students from socioeconomic and racial backgrounds different than their own.”

The visible determination that exists in the young students is yet another aspect to the educational process that the tutors themselves go through at the program, the co-directors explained.

The program now seeks to expand as its organizers seek more partnerships with local businesses and sponsors, though CWRU students continue to comprise the greater part of the pool of willing tutors.

“By providing volunteers and contributions, they will help carry us into our third decade,” Steele said.

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