"Belzer Middle School is a rather large school with about 1,450 students in grades six, seven, and eight," Jerry Hammes explained to Education World. "As in many other schools, class sizes have been growing and putting a heavier load on teachers, giving them less and less time to help students. Also, as in many middle schools, we have a number of students who are disconnected from school and are failing classes. In the summer of 1998, I had an idea to start an after-school tutoring program to help those students."
Hammes, a general music teacher, recruited members of the National Junior Honor Society at his Indianapolis, Indiana, school to assist in his effort -- then the program got underway. Later, Hammes obtained a grant for a tutor-training program.
The after-school program ran more smoothly after receiving the grant, but Hammes still could not control how consistently students received tutoring. "Because it was after school, many students would show up one week and not show up the next," he said. "There was some success, but students mostly came just to get their homework done; that was about it."
Hoping to make more of a difference with students, Hammes proposed a tutoring class that would meet daily -- as part of the school day. Although he originally called the program "Guided Studies," at the recommendation of his 16-year-old daughter, the more hip title of "Peer Pals" was chosen.
The new course began the following year with the school's seventh graders. Hammes set goals and requirements for the class and selected 20 tutors. Then, from a list of 60 sixth grade students recommended by teachers, he chose 20 who were struggling and whom he believed would benefit most from the tutoring experience. Tutors attended training sessions after school, beginning with the second day of classes.
On the first day of class, "we discussed assignment notebook requirements, binder organization, and how we were going to decide who would work together," recalled Hammes. "The group was very receptive and eager to get started. We spent the next two classes getting everyone organized -- some of them for the first time in their school life!"
Students were permitted to choose their tutoring partners, and although the process took a little time and required some minor adjustments, Hammes reports that their choices worked out well. Having the work sessions during the school day has dramatically improved attendance. Many of the tutors take the class as an elective, and some take it in lieu of their special area courses. Tutors and tutees are required to bring books to class each day and usually are part of the same "team" of students, with the same classes and teachers. A few key tutors check in with their teachers to find out what material the classes will be covering in upcoming weeks.
Hammes and the students set goals, and he constantly monitors the grades of the students being tutored. He also grades the students' assignment notebooks and binders for neatness and organization. As an incentive, he offers ice cream rewards twice in each grading period for those who show improvement. Two of this year's tutees performed so well that they have become tutors, allowing additional students to enroll in the program.
"Beyond their academic success, the tutees have found two people -- their tutor and me -- who truly care about them," said Hammes. "Many of the students are not only more connected with school, but they truly seem happier with it too."
Article by Cara Bafile
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