Media Gallery

By Steve Giegerich
Monday, Apr. 21 2008

St. Louis — Marlys Chambers has seen a lot of high school students sign up as volunteer tutors at Fanning Middle School with the best of intentions.

Chambers, who directs the UrbanFuture after-school tutoring program, said the high school volunteers share a heartfelt desire to help middle school pupils master the intricacies of math and communications arts. Many come from the region's private schools, as part of the nonprofit program's 11-year effort to help struggling students in St. Louis Public Schools.

Still, Chambers has found that the tutors' altruism is often accompanied by a desire to polish their college résumés by mentoring in the urban school district — exactly the kind of service known to impress college admissions officers.

It was, in fact, the quest for college that pointed Asheanus Yancy and Katrina Mason toward UrbanFuture and Fanning.

But there, the similarities between the two and many of the tutors from elite high schools ended.

Asheanus and Katrina are seniors at Roosevelt High School in St. Louis.

Like the middle school students they signed up to mentor, the two know firsthand what it means to strive for an education from within an urban school district.

"They came in genuinely committed," Chambers said.

And yet, even though Asheanus and Katrina had themselves once participated in after-school programs in middle school, neither knew quite what to expect when they first showed up to volunteer at Fanning last fall.

Instinctively, they turned to the lessons instilled in them by Kimberly Mason, the mother who nurtured Katrina's education and Joyce Thomas, the grandmother who put Asheanus on a path that she hopes will eventually lead to medical school.

"My grandmother and I sat there and we worked and we worked and we worked," said Asheanus.

So, too, do the students placed in the care of Asheanus and Katrina.

"I'm here," Asheanus tells them, "just as long as it takes you to get it."

It didn't take long for Katrina and Asheanus to see the tangible results of their efforts in the Fanning students.

A humbled Asheanus "can't even describe" the fulfillment she feels in the hours spent at Fanning.

Two words emerge when she gives it a shot: "warm and fuzzy."

An afternoon last week found Katrina holding a wide-ranging tutorial of math and communication arts with three students.

At the next table, Asheanus guided another student through a writing assignment.

Later, Katrina shrugged off her ability to provide a ready answer when the definition of a radius arose.

"We use a radius everyday in physics," she explained.

When it comes to tutoring, Chambers pointed out, proximity in age provides 11th and 12th grade mentors with an edge when it comes to tutoring younger students.

"The reason it works with high school students is that subjects like math and science are more immediate to them," she said. "It's right in their minds."

The narrow age gap between tutors and students also gives high school mentors an advantage over older mentors, said Fanning eighth-grade math teacher Christopher Ross.

"A lot of times peer tutors can relate to (younger students) in a way that makes (math) easier to explain," said Ross, who has seen a marked improvement in math scores of the students tutored by Katrina, Asheanus and other UrbanFuture volunteers.

That's definitely the case with Donna Gladden who, under Katrina's tutelage, has seen the D's in math she received as a seventh-grader inch toward a B in her final semester in the eighth grade.

Her tutor, said Donna, made math fun. More importantly, she "taught me to keep trying and don't doubt myself."

Katrina deflects her students' success right back at them. "It's not so much that I give them an answer," she said. "I give them a clue and let them find it."

With the school year drawing to an end, Asheanus and Katrina are as awed by an aptitude for teaching they didn't existed as they are saddened by the prospect of soon bidding farewell to the eighth-graders they've met week in and week out for the past year.

But the future beckons.

And when Asheanus heads to the pre-med program at the University of Missouri and Katrina to the pre-law program at the University of Nebraska, they'll be leaving more than a group of grateful students, four years their junior behind.

"When you tutor you really become attached to these kids," said Katrina. "They become brothers and sisters."


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