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Community Tutoring Program Gives Penn State Students Opportunity to Help Local Youth

by on September 06, 2012 6:00 AM

When it comes to State College (town) and Penn State (gown) coming together, the Friendship Tutoring Program is one example of the good that’s possible.

For a few hours on Sunday afternoons during the academic calendar year, dozens of elementary school-aged children meet individually with volunteers — mostly Penn State students — who instruct and aid, coach and mentor.

But their time together is much more than that. As the children improve their scholastic abilities by playing board and computer games, drawing pictures, writing poems, and just plain working hard, trust is bridged and relationships are formed. One of the best lessons the kids end up learning is that, above all, school can be fun.

The secular program, sponsored and hosted by Faith United Church of Christ, was founded by Maureen Dunham, a retired schoolteacher, in 1999. This fall marks the 14th year for the program.

From the onset, the core of the Friendship Tutoring Program (FTP) was designed to support students after they left the Park Forest Day Nursery and entered the school system. What began with eight students doubled halfway through the first year — now, the program has about 40 to 45 kids participating.

The program has steadily grown and now consists of students referred not only by the Park Forest Day Nursery but also by Head Start and the State College Area School District. In addition, children not referred by one of these institutions will be considered on a space-available basis.

“The involved students are typically below grade level in reading and/or math or may be struggling to keep up with their peers in other various areas,” FTP director Laura Griffin says. “Once referred, I contact each student’s individual classroom teacher so I can better help direct the tutor to be the most efficient we, as a group, can be.”

Griffin, also a retired school teacher who is entering her sixth year at the helm of FTP, effectuates ample and varied responsibilities, including keeping inventory, ordering materials, and guiding the tutors, principally by providing feedback on a week-by-week basis.

“Weekly journals are kept by the students and tutors, normally explaining what transpired in the session,” she says. “I review the journals and make notes where necessary, then e-mail a follow-up reading assignment for each [student/tutor] to have on hand the following week.”

One of Dunham’s original visions was to keep the foundational support for the children at a one-on-one basis. By the latter part of the second year, when attendance had grown greatly, she approached the Penn State College of Education to inquire about students assisting in tutoring (tutors initially began as volunteers from the church). Currently, most of the tutors are from the College of Education and are undergoing their first field work.

“It’s a great, first practical experience,” Griffin says. “Each child is assigned the same tutor throughout the semester. Ideally, the tutor and student are together for the entire year. This creates a wonderful mentorship and friendship. The tutors are in prime positions to be good influences as to the importance of education.”

Dunham agrees saying, “The bonds that form between student and tutor are irreplaceable.”

Katie Sullivan, a senior elementary-education major from Harrison City, has been involved with Friendship Tutoring for the past two years. This fall, she will step up her responsibilities by taking on the assistant-director role. She will be a substitute tutor where needed, but her duties will increase to include welcoming the arriving students, keeping attendance records, and manning the on-site computer lab.

“I’ll act as an additional resource to any of the tutors who may have questions,” she says.

Sullivan acknowledges that she has grown exponentially, both personally and professionally, from the experience.

“I discovered how much I thoroughly enjoy working one-on-one with a child,” she says. “I had the fortune of working with the same boy (Christopher Nguyen, 12) all four semesters I was a tutor. We developed such a connection that I didn’t want to miss tutoring, even for one week.

“When I saw Christopher accomplish something he had been struggling with, it really meant a lot to me. That’s what made me keep coming back.”

On a more professional level, Sullivan has grown as well. “This program has helped me understand the Penn State philosophy — to focus on personal needs instead of just basic standards and going through the motions. I really strive to ask myself, ‘What can I do to make sure [Christopher] is getting what he needs out of this session? How can I make sure he’s benefiting?’ ”

It’s because of this positive, caring attitude that Nguyen’s mother, Vicky Ninh, showers accolades upon Katie.

“It’s hard for me to put into words what Katie has meant to Christopher. She is consistent and involved, really looking into the areas where Christopher needs the most help. She’ll be a great teacher,” she says.

Raghda Ibrahim has witnessed the academic progression of her daughter, Heidi, 9, in the four years she has been involved with FTP. Ibrahim speaks highly of the program, and is particularly happy with the immediate assessments she receives.

“One of the greatest benefits of the program is the evaluations. I know right away if there is a problem and what it is, and we can work together to make sure Heidi is getting the extra help she needs through Friendship Tutoring,” Ibrahim says.

An additional benefit of her daughter’s involvement with the tutoring process is the enrichment of self-confidence skills that translates to her experiences in the classroom.

“Heidi generally has a positive attitude toward school, but she has become more confident, especially with answering questions in class,” Ibrahim explains.

Ibrahim also has seen the constructive rapport between her daughter and Penn State senior Katherine Preston.

“Heidi has built a positive relationship with Katherine. She has the characteristics of an older sister, and she knows who the kids are talking about today,” — such as singers and celebrities. “Heidi is eager to do her work if Katherine is involved because she makes it much more fun,” Ibrahim says.

Preston, an elementary-education major from Lititz, enjoys her time with the program, evidenced by her being a part of Friendship Tutoring since her sophomore year.

“I try to keep a very casual atmosphere when I’m with Heidi,” she says, “because I feel we relate more to each other that way. We talk about what she did the previous week, both in and out of school. I love to listen to her. I also want her to know that it is okay if she does not understand everything the first time and that asking for help is never a sign of failure. Our relationship is all about open communication.”

Like many organizations these days, FTP must deal with funding issues in a struggling economy. Bob Dunham, Maureen’s husband, has been instrumental in helping with financial aspects of the program, acquiring donations of books, computers, software — even food — from various national companies and local establishments. These items act as positive reinforcement, making it possible to provide snacks to keep focus levels at the ready and provide book rewards for good attendance.

Regardless of any funding problems, FTP, its board, and its partners in the community stay committed to providing a quality program for the children who most need it — and their past successes continue to drive them in doing so.

“These kids are so important,” Maureen Dunham says emotionally. “They are the beneficiaries and the real purpose of the program.”

For more information about the Friendship Tutoring Program and how to support it, visit

Amy King is a contributor to Town&Gown, and teaches preschool at Grace Lutheran Preschool & Kindergarten. She lives in State College with her husband and three children.
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