The young Bangladeshi boy had no reason to trust Amanda Wolkin.
Why would he? He spoke little English, and in his crowded kindergarten classroom at Henry C. Lea School, he often got lost in the hectic shuffle of 30 students, all of whom craved attention. Wolkin, who walked into his life as a volunteer tutor, part of a partnership between the school and Penn, established by Graduate School of Education Professor John Fantuzzo, was a stranger to him.
“Throughout the semester, I both observed and worked individually with ‘S’ on his language needs,” says Wolkin, a junior in the College, who refers to the student by an initial to protect his identity. “Communicating with him was, at first, very difficult, as he had only a rudimentary level of understanding English. But, as weeks went by, S began communicating with me in English more and more, both in a purely academic sense and a conversational sense. Even writing his name was a huge accomplishment, as was recognizing letters.”
Fantuzzo has been sending his undergraduate and graduate students into Philadelphia’s public schools for years. He does so not only to educate them about child development, and not only so they can observe the challenges faced by public educators in urban school districts throughout the country. The focus, he insists, also must be on the young minds with which his students work.
“We’re not using the classrooms as laboratories for privileged Penn students,” says Fantuzzo, the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations and director of the Penn Child Research Center. “We cannot be creating experiences for our students that don’t yield gains for the Philadelphia students they work with. That’s our ethical responsibility. I want people in my class who have commitments to children in urban education even though they might not have a career in public education.”
People like Madelyn Levasseur. The sophomore psychology major in the College took Fantuzzo’s “Tutoring in Urban Public Schools: A Child Development Perspective” class primarily because she was interested in its community service component. Last semester, she worked with a boy named Arnold in a third-grade classroom.
“He was a really special kid,” she says. “He struggled with reading, but he’s also really good at hiding that. I tried to answer any questions he had, help him with spelling and sounding out words. Some of the time it worked, some of the time he was resistant to help, but I like to think that at least by showing him that it wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t read that maybe I helped him a little bit.”
Lea third-grade teacher Jaime Arafin sees firsthand the impact the Penn students have on her children.
“It’s really hard to get written work out of the students unless they have someone sitting with them personally,” she says. “The Penn tutors help with that.”
By the end of the semester, Levasseur, who still volunteers at Lea and joined Penn’s community service club, noticed progress in Arnold.
“He was way more into teamwork with the kids at his table,” she says. “There were a couple girls at his table who were really smart and really liked helping, so I would encourage him to talk to them about spelling. I think that really helped him.”
Fantuzzo’s program is just one of several the University has in place with Lea, ranging from “We Can Swim,” an initiative in which volunteers from Penn’s varsity swim team teach elementary students how to swim, to an after-school entrepreneurship program sponsored by Wharton. The principles Fantuzzo teaches his students can be applied to all of Penn’s programs with Lea.
“I tell them three things: Nurture, respect, and expect,” he says. “What happens a lot of times is people are expecting of public education, but they don’t understand that there needs to be nurturing, and there needs to be respect. You can’t teach that if you are not in the classroom. If we don’t produce success in urban education, we then work against children’s hope that they are smart and that they can learn. We have to generate success. Unless you have compassion, unless you’re willing to give of yourself, you’re going to be distorted in your ability to respect.”
Wolkin’s experience was transformational. At the end of her volunteer stint, she saw S initiate a conversation with a peer for the first time, raise his hand and participate in class, and smile at her each time she walked through the door.
“The most important thing I took away from the experience was the knowledge that, although the education problems facing our country, and more specifically Philadelphia, are vast, taking the time to help a single child is not an impossible task,” she says. “I don’t know where S’s life will take him, but I hope that in our short time together I managed to convince him that he is smart, he is capable, and he is supported. If every student knew that, perhaps the state of education would be in a different, less dire, place.”
Originally published on April 18, 2013