Meeting a Need

Prodded by the end of bilingual education, a high-achieving, enterprising youth organized a program---despite some adult naysaying---in which high school students tutor younger children

Maria Moreno knew her three school-age boys needed extra help with reading. But as a working single mother with a 2-year-old, she simply didn’t have the time to provide it.

For Moreno, salvation came in the form of a flier advertising the Children’s Literacy Program, a one-on-one reading project that matches Laguna Hills High School students with elementary school children struggling with language.

Every Tuesday and Thursday night during the school year, Moreno dropped off her second-, third- and fourth-grade sons at the high school’s career center.

“They liked it,” she said. “I think their reading improved, and they loved using the computers.”

Although the program’s founder is headed to Stanford University, she says the free tutoring will be back in September.

Golnaz Alemi, 18, has won praise for her program from state education officials and others.

Alemi herself never found school much of a struggle. Straight from high school, she is entering Stanford as a junior, thanks to college credits earned in Advanced Placement and community college courses. It’s a family tradition: Her older brother, Farzad, did the same thing at Stanford, as will her twin sister, Farnaz.

The family tradition–placing a priority on academics–is the reason the reading program exists, said Assistant Principal Ed Adams, who worked with Alemi to launch it.

“It all goes back to what’s been established in the household,” he said.

Alemi saw the need for the program last summer. Voters had just passed Proposition 227, ending bilingual education in the schools for most students. Alemi feared that many Spanish-speaking students would not be able to understand their teachers and would miss out on the education they needed.

“I saw a complete need for this program, because language is the basis for all education. You can’t understand math, you can’t understand history unless you understand the fundamentals of language,” said Alemi, who was raised speaking English, but also speaks Persian and studied Spanish.

Elementary school teachers seldom have the time to provide individual attention, she said.

“Everyone is different,” Alemi said. “Everyone has their own tempo for learning, their own rate of understanding things. So this extra help at nights on a one-to-one basis really makes a difference.”

First, Alemi did some research and discovered that there were several adult literacy programs in her area but nothing like the program she had in mind, in which high school students would teach younger children to read.

She paid for brochures describing the program and began trying to find the right person in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District to listen to her idea.

“That was one of my toughest challenges,” Alemi remembered. “It’s such a big district, and I was just one student asking them to do a project. I ran into several people who said, ‘We can’t do that.’ ”

She persisted and finally connected with Gloria Roelen, the district’s second-language program coordinator, who saw the project as worthwhile for everyone.

“Students helping other students is an effective way to get kids to progress academically and linguistically,” Roelen said.

Alemi presented her plan to Adams at Laguna Hills High, offering to provide the supplies if the school let her use a classroom. After lining up potential students who needed tutors, Alemi set her sights on finding tutors.

She found them thanks to the school’s graduation requirement of eight hours of community service.

“That first meeting, I really didn’t think there would be anyone there,” Alemi said. “But to my amazement, 10 to 15 tutors showed up and about that many kids.”

>From that beginning, the program grew. Alemi spent a lot of time on the telephone, calling children each week to see who was coming and running down her list of tutors. She got donations from individuals for refreshments and bought supplies such as flash cards. Usually, the students brought their own books for reading.

Alemi saw results after just a few sessions. First, the students’ self-confidence improved, and that’s a big part of success in learning, Adams said.

“A lot of kids are apprehensive about wanting to learn, because failure might be there,” he said. “To me, failure only comes in not trying. Who has to be there to help them try? Kids like Golnaz.”

The buddy system is a key element of the program, Alemi believes. By working with high school students, younger children understand that they can achieve too. And goals become clearer. “Everyone needs someone to discover you,” she said. “That’s what I tried to do with this program.”

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