Bilingual tutors empower students

ROCHESTER — The three girls sat at a horseshoe-shaped table as they ate their lunch and chatted — about math facts.

Volunteer tutor Allen Kass sat across from them, good-naturedly "grilling" the girls in English on such questions as "What is 5 +1?" and "How about 1+8?," while they munched on chips and nacho dip. When Tayris López, 8, answered "What is 7+3?" correctly, she received high praise.

"I can’t fool you girls," Kass said jokingly.

The Nov. 16 tutoring session was one of three sessions a week that the group of girls — which also includes 10-year-old Shayna Merced and 8-year-old Kimberly Martínez — attend in a bilingual third-grade classroom at Pinnacle School No. 35.

The elementary school for grades kindergarten through six has 436 students, of whom 43 percent is Hispanic, according to Principal Robert Kuter. Each grade level also has a bilingual classroom.

Currently, the tutoring program draws tutors from a variety of backgrounds who volunteer for any number of reasons, explained Thomas "Ike" Neilson, who runs the program.

"Some tutors do this because their kids went to this school and they want to give back," he said. "Others are interested in early education. A lot of them just enjoy spending time with the kids."

Yet Neilson has an ongoing challenge in finding volunteers to serve students in the school’s English Language Learners program, who are mainly Spanish speakers. About 10 additional bilingual tutors are needed, he said.

"We are seeing more kids come in from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Latin America with very little English," Neilson said.

For example, one teacher of a fourth-grade classroom of 24 students had six students arrive this fall knowing no English. Another third-grade teacher wanted to place some of her students in the program, but no bilingual tutors were available.

"Pretty much, every teacher has said I’d love to have a tutor for every kid because (teachers) don’t have the time to give one-on-one attention," he said.

School 35’s program is one example of the tutoring opportunities offered by most of the district’s elementary schools, which provide additional academic assistance through the school itself or in partnership with a community organization, according to Tom Petronio, district spokesman.

"I can tell you that we can always use additional bilingual volunteers in our schools," he added.

With math, School 35 tutors have been able to get around the lack of bilingual teachers because numbers are constants no matter the language, said Neilson, who often fills in as needed.

"It’s not about statistics," he said. "It’s about helping kids."

Kass said he enjoys helping the students. He learned about the tutoring opportunity through his affiliation with the Jewish Federation — which Neilson noted also provides a large number of volunteers — and said he feels he is helping make a difference in these children’s sometimes difficult lives.

"I saw a kid in the hallway that I tutored last year and he gave me such a big hug," Kass said. "Some of these kids should get an A just for getting to school."

Cindy Cianniny of Pittsford said she sometimes wishes she could bring her own children with her to School 35 to meet some of the students so that her children could appreciate the comparative ease of their lives. A next-door neighbor of Neilson’s, Cianniny began tutoring three years ago because she knew there was a need for volunteers.

"If you can make a difference in just one kid’s life and inspire them to do better (in school), you are doing good," remarked Cianniny. "Hopefully, we can get more than one."

Many tutors also come from Third Presbyterian Church, which provides $11,000 to cover materials and salaries, Neilson added. He initially learned about the tutoring opportunity from one of the church’s ministers and decided to volunteer since he had tutored students when he lived in Philadelphia.

He took on the role of coordinator this year and oversees 35 tutors working in the schools with 187 students. Most tutors come in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays for shifts of two hours each. With a $5,500 grant from the Rochester Women’s Giving Circle, the program added a Math Matters component in a concentrated effort to boost math scores for girls in third and fourth grades, according to information at

Math Matters also includes funding for incentives that the girls can earn for their classrooms by participating in the program, Neilson explained.

"It’s a pilot program," he added. "Lots of people are interested in how this goes and if the program shows progress."

With the grant, assistant coordinator Linda Jorgensen has created mini-lessons that will enable math tutors to keep things consistent as different volunteers rotate through the weekly schedule, she said.

Thanks to Math Matters, fourth-grade teacher Tucker Ruderman said he has seen a big difference in his students who participate.

"I’ve seen growth in their self-confidence," he noted. "They seem so much more empowered. They come alive and look forward to math time. … They’ve done an amazing job. The tutors are so caring and helpful."

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