News Column

After-school learning grows at city center

May 7, 2014

By Jill Whalen, Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa.



May 07--Elaine Maddon Curry has been keeping tabs on an after-school learning program at the Hazleton One Community Center for months.

Youths -- most of them English language learners -- visit the center weekdays to complete homework and study with volunteer teachers, said Maddon Curry, a volunteer with the Hazleton Integration Project, the organization that oversees center activities.

The homework help program has been going well even though students -- like many of their peers -- have to be reminded to do their school work, she said.

But a new partnership between HIP and Penn State University's main campus has changed that. Using computers outfitted with Skype video conferencing software, students at the Hazleton center connect with education majors at University Park.

It's made students want to learn, Maddon Curry said.

"I'm thrilled with the results I have seen," she said of the virtual tutoring program. "Just seeing their excitement. You run an after-school program, and you keep saying, 'Do your homework. Do your homework.' But I didn't have to say, 'Go Skype.'"

The pilot program began earlier this year after Penn State researchers, students and administrators met with HIP board members and volunteer teachers, said Bob Curry, president of the HIP board. Through discussions, the Penn State contingent learned that many elementary and middle school students enrolled in the after-school program were in need of additional academic and linguistic support.

"We had spoken on the phone previously," said Dr. Megan Hopkins, assistant professor of World Language Education at Penn State, "and I had suggested a number of things we could try to do. One was this tutoring program."

Hopkins was familiar with a Penn State program tutoring program at a Philadelphia elementary school, and believed a similar model could produce positive results in Hazleton.

HIP officials agreed it could work.

"We have computers here. They have education majors there," Bob Curry said.

HIP and Hazleton Area School District educators identified the students most in need of help, and students in a Penn State class taught by May Lee devised weekly educational plans for them.

Each Tuesday, the 16 Hazleton youths logged onto the Internet to meet face-to-face with their Penn State tutor.

"What we did see with pairing our students with the students here is that all of a sudden, our students at Penn State were like, 'Wow. This is really cool. This is really neat to see the students,'" Lee said.

Lee said the partnership benefited the undergraduates, all of whom are required to take a course related to teaching English language learners. With the link to Hazleton, the Penn State students get hands-on experience, she said.

Many of them have told her that they feel more prepared to work with English language learners.

Hopkins said it is too soon to scientifically gauge the partnership results. But she and others believe that it is having a positive impact.

"We are already working with the staff at the community center to lay the groundwork for doubling or even possibly tripling capacity for the distance learning program," she said. "It is truly rare to see a program that has provided such obvious benefits for both sides so quickly."

HIP Executive Director Eugenio Sosa said the partnership has helped build confidence in the students.

"Most of the time when they want to try something that they don't know, both sides are scared," he said. The students were able to overcome those fears -- and as a result, he said, they developed a great sense of achievement.

Hopkins is applying for a grant to provide more technology at the center, and Bob Curry said an anonymous individual decided to donate 16 new computers after hearing about the virtual tutoring program.

"This partnership has created a spark for learning in our youths," he said.

The students and tutors eventually met at the State College campus, where they ate in a dormitory cafeteria, toured the campus and ate Berkey Creamery ice cream.

Next up, Penn State instructors and undergraduates will visit the center, community and area schools to plan the future of the program. The students will also work -- in person -- with English language learners at the center.

Based on her observations, Maddon Curry expects the program to flourish.

"To see the faces of our kids when they are Skyping with their tutors is remarkable," she said. "When we started, very few of our children were anxious to participate. Now every kid in the after-school program wants to be involved."

jwhalen@standardspeaker.com

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(c)2014 the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.)

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Source: Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, PA)


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