Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/ahwatukee/articles/1213MyouthsZ14.html

Tutors help pupils, themselves
At-risk teens teach, learn responsibility
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 13, 2003
Mel MelÚndez

Lowell Elementary School student Antonia Ramirez glances up at the 14-year-old tutor who is helping her alphabetize the colorful letter blocks.

"No, that's not the 'H,' " says Grisalda Nevarez, removing a misplaced  block. "Busca otra. (Find another.) What does the 'H' look like?

"That's right," she says, eliciting a worshipful smile from the first-grader. "Very good."

It's a heartwarming scene that hints at how 25 Mesa Junior High School kids can impact the lives of the struggling students they tutor. What isn't as  obvious is the effect the younger students can have on their adolescent tutors - students at high risk for dropping out of school.

"It's fun to help the little kids," said tutor Danitza Inzunza, 15. "But they help us, too, because I try to be as responsible as I can to be a good role model for them. The kids really look up to you, and you want to show them that they can succeed in life."

The tutoring sessions are part of the Salt River Project/Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, which targets middle school students with behavior problems and those from single-family or low-income homes to inspire them to remain in school and attend college.

The program was started in 1984 by the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio. Coca-Cola spends about $3 million annually to offer Valued Youth in eight states, Great Britain and Brazil. Arizona introduced the program three years ago, with the SRP signing on as co-sponsor. Participating school districts include Mesa, Tempe, Dysart and Tolleson.

Mesa's participants all hail from Mesa Junior High, where the students train daily on teaching techniques and work with guest trainers to build their leadership skills. Students earn $5.15 an hour for the 40-minute tutoring sessions they lead at Lowell four days a week.

Benefits for the tutors include boosted class attendance and grades, reduced behavior problems, increased self-confidence and lower dropout rates, said Kathy Sandoz, Mesa Unified's coordinator.

The students also train at Arizona State University in June as part of the ENLACE program, exposing them to college, financial aid and career programs.

"So the kids get a lot out of it," Sandoz said.

National recognition

National statistics seem to support Sandoz's assessment. According to organizers, fewer than 2 percent of all Valued Youth tutors have dropped out of school during the past decade, gaining the program national recognition as one of the most successful dropout prevention programs in the country.

The statistic is significant because many of the tutors are minority students, especially Latinos, who drop out of school in greater numbers. For example, nearly 36 percent of Latino boys and 28 percent of Latinas in the Class of 2000 dropped out of high school, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Experts estimate the national Latino dropout rate at about 15 percent. (Conclusive data on Latino dropouts are hard to come by because census figures include immigrant teenagers who often don't attend school here.)

What's more, about 88 percent of Lowell Elementary students and nearly 67 percent of Mesa Junior High kids are Latino with 94 percent of the young  students and 84 percent of the teens on free or reduced lunch. Many of those students are English language learners, which accounts for Mesa's 20 bilingual tutors.

"So many of these students face many challenges and need all the help they  can get," Sandoz said.

Teachers mentor teens

While the teens serve as role models for the younger students, the 14 Lowell Elementary teachers mentor the teens.

Kamie Gaebel, a 12-year teaching veteran, called the tutors a "godsend." Some of her third-graders have shown much improvement in spelling and reading since working with the teens, she said.

"It goes beyond the academics though, because the tutors model good behaviors and the kids mimic them because they look up to them," Gaebel said. "I've watched as my discipline problems have really turned that behavior around. It's been great."

The tutors, who are called Youth Teachers, take pride in their students' progress, said Oscar Guevara, 14.

They also welcome the hourly stipend, which some use for daily expenses, others save for college and a few use to help support their families. But the ultimate goal is to stay focused, so they do well in school, he said.

"It's fun to help the kids out," Guevara said. "I want them to learn, so they can go to college. Everybody needs a good education."

Reach the reporter at mel.melendez@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-7758.