South Philadelphia: A Tutoring Program for Spanish-Speaking Students

Two second grade girls completed their homework at a tutoring session of Puentes Hacia el Futuro.]

Crayons scribbled across papers, filling in the lines. Pencils scrawled careful letters. The sounds of stories being told to eager ears bounced throughout the room where students were finished with their homework for the day with the help of the tutors at Puentes Hacia el Futuro, a tutoring program designed to fit the needs of first-generation American students who grow up in Spanish-speaking homes, but are thrown into English-speaking schools.

“We have one student who I was told last year really struggled with basic tasks like writing letters or pronouncing words on the page. This year I’ve noticed that she has really grown and she is able to do assignments much faster. She’s able to concentrate for longer periods of time. I can’t say it’s attributed entirely to our program, but I’d like to think that we had some help in maybe helping her advance more in her education,” said Lauren Lindner, the coordinator of Puentes Hacia el Futuro. The program’s name means “Bridges Toward the Future” in English.

Two second-grade girls completed their homework at a tutoring session of Puentes Hacia el Futuro.

“Teachers are dealing with a variety of different cultures within the classroom,” Katie Murphy said. Murphy became involved in Puentes Hacia el Futuro last December. She is a doctoral student working toward her master’s degree in public health. She spent the last year observing a first-grade class to get a better grasp on what the students’ needs are.

“I think it’s definitely the case that a lot of the kids start school in kindergarten with a limited English proficiency and so, for them it’s really hard because they’re not only starting school for the first time and learning how to do school and adjusting to school, but they’re also trying to learn a new language,” Daphne Owen said. Owen is a first-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania and has been a volunteer at Puentes de Salud for two-and-a-half years. She’s been working on the tutoring project for about a year.

The program’s second year of education assistance is in full swing and rapidly growing. Last year the program only met twice a week with 15 students and 20 volunteers as tutors with some basic funding. Patients seen at the Puentes de Salud clinic made donations that were usually around $10. The tutoring sessions were held at the Houston Community Center at Eighth and Snyder streets out of the Puentes office space. However, the program received a grant from Children Can Shape the Future, an organization that funds programs for children in Camden and Philadelphia.

“Having support from Children Can Shape the Future has been huge and really allowed us to expand,” Owen said.

This year, the program has more than doubled with 32 students and 70 volunteers. Now, the program meets three times every week with an additional day for art class. Owen, Lindner, Murphy and Dr. Steven Larson approached the principal of Southwark School at 1835 S. Ninth St., Margaret Chin, about using classrooms at the school for the program. Because of the grant and the ability to reach out to more students, the program was expanding beyond the space they previously had available. Chin agreed to let them use the space.

Puentes Hacia el Futuro is a branch program from a larger organization called Puentes de Salud, which means “Bridges of Health” in English. Puentes de Salud is a volunteer-based organization that promotes the health of Latino immigrants by maintaining a health clinic specifically for their use.

“The tutoring program is really Dr. Larson’s brainchild,” Owen said, “Part of what is so exciting to me about the tutoring program is that it gives us the chance to do something preventative rather than taking care of problems that have already manifested themselves.”

Mary McDyer, a Temple University Student, helped a student write the letters of the alphabet.

Larson is a founding force and medical director behind the main program, Puentes de Salud. He is the assistant dean for Global Health Programs and an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He has spent many years treating youth, such as young men with gunshot wounds or pregnant teenage women, in the emergency room.

“My job is to keep these kids out of my ER. I don’t want to see them in a compromised position,” he said.

Larson said he knew education was the right place to start to put children on the right path early on, but resources were hard to come by.

“We always wanted to do the after school program and just, the planets aligned and we were able to do that about two years ago when one of our volunteers stepped up to the plate,” he said. That volunteer was Daphne Owen and she took the initiative to physically start the program and get it on its feet.

The volunteers alternate sessions helping to teach the students and aid them through their assignments. Each day the students receive a “My Plan for Today” sheet that they use to plan out the three things they need to accomplish for the day. The list usually includes three of their assignments, depending on their workload and the student goes through their plan to complete each assignment before they’re allowed to play.

“We really put an emphasis on the importance of school and schoolwork and try to support them as best we can in really understanding the work and going through it and doing the best they can to complete their work for school the next day,” Lindner said.

The tutors have noticed that many of the students will copy from one another or do whatever they can in order to blend in.

“When they are in a situation where they are confronting a new language and a new culture at the same time, their overriding instinct becomes to fit in, rather than to learn,” Murphy said.

The tutoring program is a controlled, safe environment for the students to stay after school to work on their homework and receive the help and attention that they need.

“Most of the kids are coming from different ages from Mexico. They don’t have a standardized education level there,” Elvis Almanzar said. Almanzar is a tutor for Puentes Hacia el Futuro and a senior psychology major at Temple University.

“A lot of the kids struggle with where they’re supposed to be in their grade level and so the homework may be a little too challenging for them. The tutors can actually help with that and take it three steps backwards and explain to them the fundamental skills that they need to do the harder problems,” Lindner said.

Michelle Kozakov said that the students look up to the tutors at the program.

However, the tutors are not the only ones doing the teaching.

“I think the kids teach you more,” Michelle Kozakov said. Kozakov is a junior biology major and Spanish minor at Drexel University who started tutoring with Puentes Hacia el Futuro a month ago.

“They don’t realize that they, themselves, are the teachers,” she said.

The tutors believe that this program is just as much a learning experience for them. Some of them are actually trying to learn Spanish themselves and Almanzar thinks that the tutoring program gives them a great opportunity to use their skills and practice with native speakers.

“For me it’s like the highlight of my week because it’s like something real that you do rather than just reading papers and writing,” Murphy said.

The tutoring program is teaching in all different directions and Larson said he believes it is promoting the wellness of the community. Owen not only hopes that all of these students will go on to graduate from high school, but she has further long-term goals for the program as well.

“I think there’s, in Philadelphia, something under 50 percent of Latino male students graduate from high school. That’s a big problem when that is the future economy of Philadelphia,” Owen said, “It’s good for us to have people who are going to be taking jobs who have a high literacy level and who have high skill levels and can get good jobs and can contribute positively.”

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