Virtual Tutoring Builds Relationships Between Penn State and a Philadelphia School
by Nancy Stiger (April 2011)
Visit 236 Chambers Building on a Thursday afternoon, and you will see sixteen computer screens lit up with the faces of Isaac Sheppard Elementary School Students.
This virtual after school tutoring program which started in the spring of 2010, pairs 16 Penn State College of Education future teachers with Sheppard students to provide educational support that could improve the children’s math and literacy skills needed to meet the School District of Philadelphia educational benchmarks. The program also establishes a caring, lasting relationship between the children and the future teachers and encourages future teachers to consider becoming urban educators.
Isaac Sheppard Elementary School is a kindergarten through fourth grade school located in the West Kensington section of North Philadelphia. Demographically, the student population consists of 92% Latino, 6% African-American, and 2% “other” students. The community is listed by Philadelphia as having 95% families living at or below Poverty Level. For the more than 250 students, the average daily attendance rate is 90% with an annual turnover of 15-20%.
The virtual tutoring program is made possible through the use of Apple iChat communication technology. The program is a part of Sheppard Elementary’s Power Hour after school program, and began in the fall with a group iChat session. Both classes introduced each other over the webcam, and the elementary students chose a mentor in an auction-like manner. Following the selection, the Penn State tutors took a trip to Philadelphia to meet the students before the tutoring began.
Children participating in the program are selected for various reasons. Students falling under the passing PSSA score range are identified as candidates for the tutoring program. The students chosen for virtual tutors are then picked by extended day teacher coordinators. The coordinators look for students that are committed to the program, have good attendance, are serious about their school work, have self control, and are respectful of others and their space.
Penn State student tutors are mostly CI 295--introductory field experience for teacher preparation--Tuesday section students because of their Thursday availability. There is also an application and interview process that seeks individuals that exhibit enthusiasm, commitment, and resourcefulness.
One Penn State tutor, Corey Keenan, a junior studying secondary education math, said she now has a strong bond with Sheppard student, Lauriam, despite some shyness on the student’s part at the beginning of the program. Keenan said that because the students get to choose their mentors, they feel more comfortable communicating with them. Lauriam now confides in Keenan, making her, more than just a tutor, but also a mentor.
Tutoring program coordinator and assistant professor of education, Sandra Rodriguez-Arroyo, added that for many of the students, school is a safe haven for them, and they are excited to be there. She said that despite the fact that students are required to attend tutoring hours only until March, the Sheppard students volunteer to remain in the tutoring program until it concludes at the end of April.
Another tutor, Kim Spohn, a sophomore studying elementary education, said she thinks her student, Anthony, is one of the brightest of the bunch, though on this particular day he was rather distracted. Anthony is a LEGO fanatic, and Kim would catch him on the screen putting two LEGOS together, instead of completing his math problems.
Spohn said she’s grown close with Anthony and that this experience has made her think about teaching in an urban school.Many Penn State tutors have built relationships with their students like Spohn and Keenan, and are planning a visit to Philadelphia this summer.
The Sheppard students paid a weekend visit to Penn State with their families in March. Arriving on Thursday, March 31, the students and their families had a weekend-long Penn State experience, visiting museums, the lion shrine, and even taking a tour of Beaver Stadium with Penn State football players.
Rodriguez-Arroyo says that she hopes that the Penn State visit will get the students thinking about college early, and that the interaction with Penn State students will give them the confidence to view college as an option.