From the Leadership Institute Symposium on Social Change
Author: Ilana Weisman
My pre-high school (read: pre-Brown) summers were just about synonymous with “staying home.” Summer may have been intended as a time for hanging out with friends, a time during which homework was a nonentity and relaxation was the priority, but did that ever happen? Not so much. Summer vacation? Nah, summer “staycation” was more like it.
I grew up with kids who would fly away (to camp, vacation, you name it!) the day after school ended, only to return the day before it started up again. However, summer camps or teen tours were never my thing. Sleep-away sounded more like punishment than party (It’s probably a control issue; I can’t stand the idea of being forced to participate in “activities” or having a schedule at all, really. That’s what nine-and-a-half months of school is for, no?). As a result, summer always seemed to turn into trying to schedule get-togethers with the, say, two friends who happened to be home. When that plan (predictably, inevitably) failed, summer reading was next on the list. Oftentimes, I finished required books over the first week of June. Although I had many more friends stay home as I grew older, summer still took on the meaning of home, mediocre weather (vacation sunshine beats our constant summer thunderstorms, any day), boredom and Boca-centered outings.
There is good news, though: I finally broke my Boca streak last summer. On June 25, 2010, I flew out to Providence, Rhode Island. For those unfamiliar with the geography the United States, Rhode Island is a pretty tiny (the tiniest!) state with a pretty tiny (one terminal!) airport. It was my first flight alone. I remember stepping off of the plane, being overwhelmed by heat (I’m from Florida - I thought Rhode Island was supposed to be cold.) and bursting with excitement.
First taxi ride ever? Check. First time seeing Brown? Check. I’m relatively positive I was completely in awe. (Re-reading my first blog, I’m absolutely positive I was.) I think that admiration only grew over my few weeks in the Leadership Institute - my class, Global Development, was hands-down amazing; my new friends, coming from every corner of the planet, were the type who I’d have for life. My action plan? That’s a different story.
I went into the program with the knowledge that I would need to develop an action plan at some point, and by the second week of class, I knew that I wanted to focus my attention on one problem in particular - education, or rather the lack thereof. It was a concrete theme of development, especially regarding universal education or the power of knowledge. I understood it as the basis to all opportunities in one’s life. With a basic education, an individual opens up a plethora of opportunities that will help him or her succeed in the long run. It nearly guarantees a healthy, happy life, and I believed it was a necessary element of development, globalization and peace. Unfortunately, though, socioeconomic and cultural disparities exist worldwide and locally. These disparities would overlap with educational opportunities, and therefore obstruct much hope at a better life. As I grew deeply passionate about the concept of universal education, I also realized that going ahead and tackling global education issues was not too feasible. Accordingly, my goal grew into creating an organization to help local students with basic literary and mathematic skills that they could use to do better on standardized tests, in school, and throughout their lives. I wanted to especially focus on lower-achieving students, students with English as a second language, and students who were labelled as “underprivileged.”
I developed and wrote my action plan with the mindset that anything could come out of it. I had just spent the past two weeks taking a course in Global Development and Leadership, hadn’t I?
As it turns out, my action plan did not end up as perfect as I had hoped. In fact, the best word I can use to describe it now is ambitious. I spent the remaining summer and fall months working on getting a tutoring program started.
Over the remainder of the summer, I emailed teachers asking if they would sponsor a tutoring club at school. I also shared my basic action plan with friends and classmates. Some expressed interest while others blatantly refused to participate.
Once school began, I pressed other faculty members at my school to sponsor a tutoring club. Out of the several I asked, the three responses I received were either “Sorry, I have another club to sponsor,” “National Honor Society already tutors and middle schools hardly need the help,” or “Thanks, but no thanks.” By September, I gave up on finding a sponsor for a tutoring club and decided that I was better off organizing a group of my friends on my own time.
I sent out emails and Facebook messages to my friends and peers with the academic ability and time to tutor. This time, many were willing to join in my efforts.
After offering to tutor, I worked with a teacher at my school to stage an extra help session led by what had been jokingly dubbed the “Super Sophomore Geek Squad.” The silly name stuck, but each member of this group maintains a very high average and is in the top of my class. Each member also had responded positively to my original invitation to tutor over the summer and very beginning of the school year.
The first extra help session was held after school one day and lasted just over an hour long. It was a success to me, my tutoring group, the teacher who wanted the help and the students who needed it. In the session, we answered students’ questions and assisted them with grasping difficult concepts.
As this first session was incredibly successful, my tutoring group became “official” and agreed to tutor more struggling high school students, to lead a “Study Strategy Session,” and to tutor younger children. Tutoring younger students, though, is my priority and since become the group’s as well.
Because I had a support system intact, I began contacting those in charge of middle and elementary school programs for students struggling because of socioeconomic, cultural or physical disparities (such as English as a Second Language programs, Exceptional Student Education programs, or programs for students from low-income households) and for students considered “high risk” in terms of educational progression.
As of now, at least one middle school and two elementary schools are interested in having high schoolers tutor struggling students, and I am meeting with directors of the middle and one elementary in the coming weeks - one meeting is planned for September 29, so I can send these results in - as standardized testing has made administrators unavailable previously. The rough plan for now is to begin tutoring mid-October, once a week at each school for sessions at least an hour in length. As you can see, these steps were to minimal avail.
In November, I attended the Leadership Institute Symposium. Although I had a wonderful time reconnecting with old friends and seeing Brown once again, I failed to match the connection to my action plan that I had earlier in the year. My “rough plan” to begin tutoring in October didn’t turn out so well; the middle school’s budget was cut so low that the principal could not afford to keep a teacher on staff for extra programming and the elementary school found a group of teenagers rather unconventional and, therefore, to not be trusted.. The Symposium did, however, reignite my passion for educational issues, probably because of one workshop where we discussed ways to get other people motivated in our projects and how to ensure longevity in an action plan.
Upon my return home, I immediately started making calls (again). I was politely declined the opportunity bring in a tutoring group (again). However, I did hit a stride with tutoring in-school: our little “Geek Squad” grew into a group of nearly twenty of my classmates who all either did extraordinarily well in AP Human Geography or were, at the time, at the top of our class. Many of these people were (thankfully) already friends of mine, so organizing after-school help once every few weeks was easily doable.
We continued with the small-scale, high school-only tutoring past our winter vacation and, in February, again tried to expand to yet another middle school. This particular school was the one that I went to for two years, and was the first to not only express interest in a tutoring program, but to acknowledge an opportunity for major academic growth and potential excellence. Although the administration was not able to make any conclusive decisions at that time, we are still speaking now (April)...more on that later.
However, March presented a personal challenge for me. My answers to a test in one class of mine were found, taken a picture of, and distributed around the school. I was furious; not only did this hurt my academic integrity, it crushed my morale, made me rather pessimistic, left me with a number of enemies, and damaged my “see the best in people, save the world, do good things!” viewpoint. You see, at this point I had made numerous elaborate study guides for my classmates. The fact that my test was cheated off of made me feel taken advantage of, trampled over, backstabbed. This...incident... made me the talk of the school for a good week, but eventually did blow over. However, the effects are still lingering. Our once “every other week!” sessions are now terribly infrequent (the last one was two weeks ago, the next one at the end of the month) and, interestingly, aimed at a different crowd.
Originally, I wanted to help underachieving students. Over the year, however, we started to help more and more overachieving students who were coming across trouble studying and succeeding in school. Now that AP season is coming up, our tutoring sessions are nearly exclusively for freshmen who need help right before their exams. We also dealt with FCAT Testing - our standardized tests that basically determine how much funding our school receives next year. I’m proud to say that we helped a good two dozen students to feel confident taking the reading test.
My action plan (predictably, inevitably) failed...in a good way. I’ve been challenged by potential partners in educational enrichment and by personal threats. I’ve found that not everything will go my way. But I’ve also realized that I am my own best motivator; without anyone stopping me, I’m extremely determined and push to achieve what I want to. Most importantly, I’ve come to accept that my plan was ambitious, and creating a multi-dimensional, multi-generational, multi-faceted tutoring program that was to extend into schools and libraries city-wide is not a feasible idea.
However, my plan allowed for many students to do better on tests after they learned basic study skills, and does still have some room for growth into middle schools. One big leap in progress is in the works now: I’m running for Vice President of our chapter of the National Honor Society, and if I get any position (winners are chosen via interview process; they may decide that I would be better fit for another office), my platform is based off of creating a tutoring program that works with the National Junior Honor Society (of the middle school spoken of above) to help students in middle and high school to enrich their educations and broaden their future prospects, as well as working with the agency Connect to Learn in international educational promotion and fundraising. Furthermore, I am now a member of the Spanish Honor Society at our school, and the project I’m attached to is three-fold and right on board with my action plan: tutoring Hispanic high schoolers in English, tutoring American high schoolers in Spanish, and tutoring both Hispanic and American elementary-age children in general studies.
In addition, on April 21, 2011 (there was a reason for this last-minute entry, I promise!), I was involved in a town hall meeting on education in my county. Although I couldn’t make the meeting due to working on the newspaper, I gave my action plan, research and proposed idea to a friend of mine who presented them along with his ideas. Apparently, the statistics that I found relating economic status to FCAT scores and my analysis of said FCAT scores compared with extra help programs offered were able to establish the point that new strategies must be taken to enhance learning and bridge various educational and socioeconomic gaps. I’m very proud of my friends for getting involved in the battle for a fairer and better established education, and very proud that my work, as well as a statement I wrote regarding the need for an interdisciplinary elementary curriculum, did have significance to someone other than myself (and my mom..speaking of my family, they have been incredibly supportive throughout the process; my little brother has been asking his aftercare counselor if he needs help everyday, and my parents enjoy checking in on my Facebook group every so often).
Since those two weeks that I spent in Providence ten months ago, I know that I have grown as a person and as a leader. The experience as a whole - the class, the Symposium, the action plan - has shaped me in a way that I didn’t think possible. As a leader, I’ve definitely drifted from my original “East” leadership style to a more assertive, more direct “North.” I can identify problems - and present possible solutions that make contextual sense. As a human being, I want to tackle educational disparities at a local and global level more than ever. I know that I need to take a stand for what I believe in, be it academic integrity and honesty or educational diplomacy, and merge my outgoing, confident “Brown self” with my slightly more reserved, less outrageous “home self.”
Since those two weeks, I’ve changed. My action plan changed. I know that my action plan may never fully come to fruition, but I’m cautiously optimistic and fairly confident that no matter what, it will have helped both underachieving and overachieving students in my school and throughout my community.
One thing that hasn’t changed? I’m still sitting on a bed (in Boca, yes, and not Providence) in the heat (to be fair, it was the summer the first time) with my laptop (that’s definitely the same), just trying to make a difference.