May 28, 2013 — Shemar Popplewell said it’s been a “pretty big struggle” to keep up his grades in math and other subjects at Roxbury Prep Charter School in Boston where he is an eighth grader. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on schoolwork, he said, because he runs a landscaping business with his cousin on the weekends to earn money. But with the help of Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) students volunteering as tutors at his school, his grades have improved.
Popplewell is one of 30 middle school students at the Mission Hill school who receive weekly tutoring in math and science from HSPH students. The program was started by Iny Jhun, an enthusiastic student ambassador for HSPH’s Office of Diversity, which provides programming support for the initiative as part of its educational outreach efforts to underrepresented youth. Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon the HSPH students walk to the Roxbury school to meet with their students. Since last November, 30 HSPH students have provided a total of over 250 hours of tutoring.
“It’s so great to see my peers invested in tutoring so passionately,” said Jhun, a third-year ScD student in environmental health who hails from Lincoln, MA. “It’s incredible to see the level of dedication of the tutors and the impact on the students.”
The program sprouted last fall from Jhun’s interest in helping others. As an MIT undergraduate in biological engineering, she planned to be a high school math teacher. During college she volunteered and mentored students at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and spent summers teaching inner city teens. After coming to HSPH to pursue research on the health effects of air pollution, she started on her own tutoring students at Roxbury Prep, a school that serves over 300 students in grades 5-8, many of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. She was drawn to the school’s commitment to closing the education achievement gap, and the opportunity to engage with the Roxbury community, given its close proximity to the HSPH campus. As she received requests from the teachers to take on more and more students, she decided to recruit her HSPH peers to tutor with her. Funding for the program is provided by the Office of Diversity and a COOP Public Service Grant.
Eighth grader Emily Villaman from Dorchester said Iny’s help in math and science has boosted her grades considerably. “Iny is a good tutor,” said Villaman. Her classmate, Jasmine Silva, who has received weekly tutoring for several months, agreed. “I’ve gotten better at algebra,” she said. “I understand it more.”
Alexis Rosenblatt, an eighth grade math teacher at the school, can’t say enough about the program. “I’ve seen students’ grades and homework completion rate improve. It’s a confidence boost,” she said. Because she’s been able to expand the number of HSPH tutors, the program has increased the number of student participants from 5-6 at launch to about a dozen per session this spring. Providing the teens with role models and an opportunity to interact with adults they don’t know helps prepare the students for high school, college, and jobs, Rosenblatt said. “Watching the students interact with strangers and negotiate these new relationships is awesome.”
The HSPH students have jumped right into the after-school tutoring program for struggling students and gracefully juggled behavior management with working through student’s academic challenges, said Elizabeth Fieldsteel, a learning specialist at the Roxbury school. “It is nice to have people from outside the school community come in and show that they too care about our students’ academic success,” she said.
In a survey of tutors conducted by Jhun, nearly 100% of them said the program was meaningful and rewarding to them as well as enjoyable. Seventy percent of the tutors said they felt appreciated. Most said they would recommend the program to a friend.
Roland Hernandez, an MPH student at HSPH and a tutor, knows firsthand how tutoring can make a difference. He was motivated by tutors who came to his school in San Antonio, TX, when he was a young student. Here are some excerpts from an email he wrote about his Roxbury Prep tutoring experience:
“There is a practical component to being a tutor to any student who is your junior, and although the benefits there are obvious, that is not really the point of tutoring ‘at-risk’ students….
“One of the major reasons I get to be here (at HSPH) writing this email is because someone told me I could. It actually took someone who I viewed as being similar to me serving as a role-model to make me think that I could be ‘like them.’
“What we do at Roxbury Prep is more than simply help the students with their homework. We get to show them that we are like them and they are like us. We get to demonstrate that even though our lives are separated by a Boston mile (which is symbolically well more than a mile in terms of opportunity and privilege) our trajectories can align until we can walk side-by-side.”
HSPH students, post-docs, faculty, and staff interested in participating in the tutoring program may contact Iny Jhun for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Aubrey Calo