LAGUNA HILLS, Calif. _ Golnaz Alemi started a volunteer tutoring program to help limited-English students after voters passed Proposition 227, the law requiring that virtually all instruction be in English.
But Alemi, a senior at Laguna Hills High School, has learned more from the experience than the kids in her program.
She learned to plow through bureaucracy, line up volunteers, budget her time. She also learned the value of performing public service.
“Most students have lost touch with their community,” said Alemi, 17. “They believe everything’s about academics, about making money. They’ve lost touch with the emotional side of life.”
Alemi organized Children’s Literacy Program, which provides an hour of tutoring for elementary students every Tuesday and Thursday evening. Up to two dozen children, mostly from Valencia Elementary School, spend an hour getting help in Laguna Hills High’s career lab.
They include the three Moreno boys _ Lane, 7, Lance, 8, and Lee, 9 _ who work on math, social studies or reading, each with his own personal tutor.
The boys are good students, said their mother, Maria Moreno. But tutors help them in ways she can’t because of her limited English and limited time as a single mother who supports her family cleaning homes.
“I am not rich,” said Moreno, a native of Mexico. “I can only send them because it doesn’t cost money.”
First-grader Brian Bocchino gave a different reason for coming as he practiced arithmetic and read “Where the Wild Things Are” with his tutor.
“I don’t have to do my chores at home,” he said.
His mother, Colette Bocchino, said she has seen progress since her son started the tutoring, which also helps children whose first language is English.
“They don’t get one-on-one help at school at all,” said Bocchino, a native of Ireland. “They also like being around the teenagers. They want to impress them.”
Some of the tutors volunteer to fulfill their school’s community-service requirement. But most said they like being around the elementary students.
Freshman Meredith Lunn said she started volunteering because she is interested in getting a job at a private tutoring agency. But she likes doing the work for free.
“I want to get a job in science or math, not really be a teacher,” she said. “But I think just doing homework with them helps them a lot. It’s fun.”
Alemi enjoys the tutoring, but that’s only a small part of the time she devotes to the program. She started making inquiries in September to line up support from Saddleback Valley Unified School District officials.
“At first, I got the feeling they were laughing at me, like, ‘How’s a high school student going to make this work?’ But I didn’t let it get to me,” she said.
After 25 or 30 phone calls, she reached Gloria Roelen, district coordinator for bilingual services.
“She seemed so serious,” Roelen recalled. “I have no idea how she came to me. But I figured this young lady deserves someone to help her.”
Studies show kid-to-kid tutoring is extremely successful, Roelen said, because young people can often communicate ideas that adults can’t.
“They’re close enough in age to understand the frustrations of learning,” Roelen said. “We as adults forget how hard it was.”
Roelen explained the basics of running a tutoring program to Alemi: publicity, permission slips, enlisting help.
Alemi did the rest, with the help of her twin sister, Farnaz.
“She had a big heart,” said Farnaz Alemi. “She heard about kids struggling. She’s directing. I’m a helping hand.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the girls phone the parents of children in the program to make sure they’re coming. Then they go down a list of tutors to make sure each child has a personal instructor. If a child speaks limited English, the sisters make sure the tutor knows Spanish, Korean or whatever language the kid speaks.
The Alemis also spend their own money on paper, pencils and treats _ animal crackers, alphabet cookies, candy _ to make the evening fun.
“They learn words with cookies,” Golnaz Alemi said. “It’s an incentive. If they spell right, they get to eat them.
“I try to keep it fun. You don’t want it to be boring after six hours in school,” she said. “You’ve got to entertain them or they go haywire.”
Golnaz Alemi has a 4.93 grade-point average, tops in her class at Laguna Hills High. Both she and her sister want to attend Stanford, following their brother, Farzad, last year’s Laguna Hills High valedictorian and winner of national prizes for establishing Homework Helpline, a free phone service for high school students.
Her older brother served as an inspiring role model, Golnaz Alemi said. So did her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Iran in 1981 after the fall of the shah.
“I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I come from a good family, a strong family. I’ve had benefits other students haven’t had. My community gave to me. Now it’s time for me to give back.”