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Peer Tutoring Program Helps Struggling Elementary School Students

By Isabel-Duarte Gray, Program Assistant, Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)

Every Tuesday morning, 33 Gideon Hausner 8th graders pile into parent carpools and ride to Theuerkauf Elementary School in Mountain View, where they spend the morning building the literacy skills of K-3rd grade students. In their assigned classrooms, the teen tutors work one-on-one with the younger students, wander the classroom providing help as needed, or sometimes lead groups to enhance their tutees’ reading skills through cooperative exercises. “As I read with them, I try to use techniques that I remember from when I was younger that helped me learn to read,” says Lucy, an 8th grader taking part in the peer-tutoring program. “For me, what is most important is that I want them to know that I love reading too, and that I am helping with it not because I was sent to, but because I want them to develop the same love of reading that I have.”

Peer Tutors at Palo Alto’s Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School strengthen the reading skills of younger students at Mountain View’s Theuerkauf Elementary School.

Tzedakah. Tikkun Olam. Gemilut Chasadim.

Seven years ago, coordinator Ora Gittelson-David was tasked with constructing a program to teach these crucial Jewish values to 7th and 8th graders at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School as part of the Avodah La’Olam - Work for the World Program. “As a former social worker, I was searching for a meaningful volunteer program that would enable our students to develop a significant ongoing relationship,” Ora explained. Then a parent told her about a tutoring program in which she and her son had participated over the summer with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, which brought them face-to-face with students in underserved schools to share the joy of reading. JCL’s peer tutoring work perfectly fit the bill and Ora knew she had found her model: “The connection with JCL was made, and the rest is history.”

Each week, after they return to Gideon Hausner, the peer tutors discuss their classroom experience and often distill those thoughts into written assignments. “I am deeply touched by my students’ ability to reflect upon what they have seen going on in a classroom in which they are tutoring, being open to learn about issues based on what they have seen, and reflecting upon their own contribution to a young child’s learning,” says Ora. The value of peer tutoring lies not only in the individual service it provides to struggling elementary school students, but also in the lesson it reinforces in its tutors about the value of community service.

“The fact that our school is able to set aside time during our school day on a regular basis for our students to give of themselves to others speaks volumes to our students in terms of understanding the value of Tikkun Olam and the piece of our mission that speaks to community responsibility.”

When students, parents, and teachers work together to better the world, everyone benefits.

The Jewish Coalition for Literacy’s partnership with Gideon Hausner Day School is one of six programs JCL has guided and trained throughout the Bay Area since 2008.  While the Jewish Community High School of the Bay sends high school tutors into San Francisco public schools twice a week in collaboration with The Village Project, Oakland Hebrew Day School’s 8th graders tutor at Greenleaf Elementary School in Oakland, and Contra Costa Jewish Day School 5th graders serve as “Big Buddies” to students at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Pleasant Hill. All have received crucial training from the Jewish Coalition for Literacy.  JCL’s programs have earned rave responses from students, teachers, and parents alike.  This spring, JCL received a grant from the South Bay Jewish Teen Philanthropy Board to facilitate this extraordinary work, in addition to funding from an anonymous donor in the East Bay.

JCL’s Literacy Trainer, Barbara Pearl, prepares 5th grade Peer Tutors at Contra Costa Jewish Day School for their work in the classroom.

Back at Gideon Hausner, the Avodah La’Olam Theuerkauf Mentoring Program is rooted in two basic Jewish values: the love of learning and the mitzvah to better the world through acts of loving kindness.  Some of the most powerful feedback Ora Gittelson-David has received from her program is praise from parents of Gideon Hausner students, who are grateful for the lessons their students have learned about the diversity of their community and the fundamental importance of literacy. “Our students gain an understanding of the fact that there is a large community out there, one that is in very close geographic proximity, that can benefit from the skills they have learned and from their willingness to give to others,” Ora explains.

But Ora doesn’t need to explain – her students can beautifully articulate the value of this program for themselves. As Moriah, another Gideon Hausner Peer Tutor, puts it: “Education is an important Jewish value, and I know that I am not only educating them now, but I am also giving them the opportunity to continue their education further in their lives, because they have been given the skills to strengthen their reading.”

Become a JCL tutor: Register for a free tutor training workshop at www.jclread.org.

The Jewish Coalition for Literacy is funded in part by a $95,000 JCF annual grant and is a joint project of Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

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