Student volunteers time to tutor next generation

Ana Olalde-Barragan, a senior from CHS, helps tutor students from Calhoun Primary at the local LEJO office.

Calhoun’s motto, “A tradition of excellence,” doesn’t apply to a select group of students. Therefore, the school system is reaching out to ensure all students receive quality education.

To do so, Calhoun City Schools has partnered with local Latinos for Education and Justice Organization through a three year initiative by Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that works on education issues in Georgia, called The Research, Engagement and Communities for Hispanic Educated Students.

An on-going grant to Georgia partnership from the Goizueta Foundation makes the program possible, and Calhoun was one of two systems picked in Georgia to participate.

With nearly a 30 percent Hispanic population in the City of Calhoun, well above the state average, according to Census data, the program aims to provide educational support for Hispanic students and provide translators for parents who speak little to no English.

Elisa Olivarez, the REACHES Program Coordinator at the Georgia partnership, has seen Calhoun leaders bring REACHES to life over the past year and a half. “The initiative has evolved from a period of research on the community’s needs into a robust, multi-faceted program aimed at improving educational opportunities for Hispanic and Latino students to ultimately increase student achievement measures,” she said in a press release.

According to the press release, Marie Funes is one of the team members charged with making the program work. She works with identified at-risk high school students as an English Language Learners Student Liaison.

“REACHES has allowed English language learners to receive extra help in spoken and written language as well as other subjects,” she said. “This has resulted in increased vocabulary and improved grades.”

Funes adds that she has seen the value of the program increase since its inception. “I have become aware of more and more high school Hispanic and Latino students who are struggling and have a language barrier. We now have the ability, through REACHES, to provide positive supports for students who would otherwise not be served with such an attention to detail.”

The REACHES advisory board has sought to build stronger partnerships with the local Latinos for Education and Justice Organization (LEJO) by collaborating to establish a resource center with post-secondary opportunity information for students. Other key efforts include introducing an Early Childhood Language Intervention Specialist, Dana Hammond, to work on literacy interventions at the Pre-K level.

“Most Pre-K programs are not equipped to address the needs of students learning English, making Calhoun’s Pre-K work that much more exciting. Dana works directly with Pre-K students on literacy skills, has established a bilingual early learning library, communicates with Kindergarten teachers about Pre-K student transitions, and even provides professional development to Pre-K staff members on the early literacy needs of students learning English,” says Olivarez.

Additionally, Calhoun has created a stakeholder group to examine and improve district translation tools, and is working to provide opportunities for teachers to receive professional development focused on preparing teachers to respond to the learning needs of English language learners in regular content classrooms.

Another program that has evolved since REACHES’ inception is the after school peer tutoring program. Calhoun High School provides this opportunity twice a week. It is staffed by classroom teachers who put in additional hours working with students identified as needing homework help.

The district held a weeklong summer camp in 2012 for elementary English Language Learners with a need for academic support, focusing on reading skills to support language development. System administrators say the impact of the summer camp was strong on pre/post program assessments.

In light of good results, the district’s leaders began brainstorming ways of bringing the success of the elementary ELL summer program into a year-round setting. How could they strategically pair academic and language support with existing programs for a longer period of time?

According to Olivarez, higher-cost ideas were considered before a bilingual peer tutoring program was derived. She said in a press release, “The practically no-cost, sustainable plan bolsters the success of the high school’s tutoring program by inviting high-achieving, upper-classmen bilingual students into the high school’s normal after school tutoring program.”

Olivarez says based on their coursework, upper-classmen bilingual students are paired to work with ELL students needing extra support in courses they have mastered. Upper-classmen students receive volunteer hours for this service to the school system, and students receiving the tutoring benefit from the individualized academic support.

“Already a ‘win-win’ for students, the results have been further reaching than expected,” she emphasizes. “Introducing more mainstream students to those learning English has had a positive effect on the school environment.” Funes is quick to add, “Friendships have been formed! Striking down communication barriers and insulating a warmer school culture, this afterschool partnership between students is a keeper.”

Debra Moyer, the REACHES director and the Calhoun City School’s College and Career Advisor, has supervised the team’s work and knows first-hand the impact the REACHES team has had and continues to have. “They are extremely dedicated to the students they serve. Marie’s interaction with our high school students has proven to increase student achievement.

We are very fortunate to be able to participate in the REACHES program through 2014,” she said. “We look forward to continued success.”

Dr. Michele Taylor believes the program has helped the school system, and would like to continue the program even after Georgia partnership’s three years is up.

“The REACHES initiative has helped us see how important it is to continuously engage all of our community partners in the learning process,” Taylor said. “We are looking at ways we can sustain the support we’ve been able to provide for our students and families as we go through the budget planning process. It is our goal to continue the program.

Follow Aaron Mann on Twitter @Amann_CT.

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