A Golden Opportunity for struggling kids

By Elizabeth Einstein | Ithaca Journal | September 16, 2016

Like our drought-damaged gardens and trees that will require lots of extra attention next spring, many Ithaca children have started school with great disadvantages.

While their ability to thrive lies within, conditions in their young lives often don’t support their academic growth. That’s where Golden Opportunity (GO), a tutoring program for struggling children, comes in to fill a gap that the school district cannot.

With so much already on their plates, teachers have little time to work extensively with these children who need much special help. That was the vision behind the founding of GO some years ago.

My 10-year-old tutee at Cayuga Height Elementary School (CHES) is a smart child, but until recently, he didn’t believe it. He explained that several people told him he was stupid, and he grew up believing it. When I’d tell him he was a smart kid, he folded his arms belligerently and said, “No, I’m not. I’m stupid.”

This went on for almost two years. That core belief kept him from doing well in school. His acting out in behavioral ways to get attention led him to the principal’s office. His antics distracted classmates, annoyed teachers and distanced him from other kids. When children avoided him, his isolation worsened.

In third grade, his teacher recommended him to the GO tutoring program. Matthew has been my student for nearly three years, and he is a delight — and often frustrating. He is an excellent reader and loves to write stories, especially very creative fiction tales. He’s aware that he’s punctuation-phobic and writes in James Joyce’s stream of consciousness style.

He’s funny. He’s kind. I’ve often seen him help other classmates with tasks, even something as simple as picking up an item they dropped. He’s won two CHES awards for his positive participation. Matt’s a good, smart kid, but without the advantages that most of his peers have.

Last year, with the help of GO tutoring and Connor Megivern, his most supportive fourth-grade teacher, he’s taken many steps to move ahead — socially, emotionally and academically. I am especially proud of his behavioral adjustments.

Like most of the children GO tutors work with, he knows he has one adult friend whom he can count on to be there for him on a one-on-one basis, two times each week and who does many special things with him outside of school.

Although he often tests it, Matthew also understands his responsibility in our partnership. He’s aware that when we see a Kidd’s Stuff play at the Hangar Theatre, it means he must write a review — before we head out for our ice cream treat. A visit to the Paleontological Center resulted in his writing a long story that became a bound book format that his school librarian put in his system. When Matthew showed classmates his “A Journey to the Past” listed in the library, he burst with pride.

After a recent tour to visit BOCES to dispel a myth about the school being for “dumb kids,” he is working on his second book about his experience. Anthony Dillucci, now retired director of Career and Technical Vocation, helped Matthew turn that notion around with an extensive tour of the BOCES campus. After that tour, Matthew wrote a “book” on his experience. Now, he says when he’s in high school, he wants to go BOCES to study culinary arts and open his own restaurant someday. Of course, these extra out-of-the-classroom projects take a lot of time for tutors, but the payoff is well worth it in the changes we see in our GO students.

Are you looking for an opportunity to invest in our community’s future by making a difference in a child’s life, and your own? Six years of tutoring children who need help in grammar school has given me much joy. Mentoring these children, who need to learn social skills and build their self-esteem to improve their academic achievement, has become a high point of my retirement — a “golden opportunity” for me and 60 other GO tutors.

Recently, out of the blue, Matthew announced to me, “I am a smart kid!” What a reward!

This article originally appeared in a September 2016 issue of the Ithaca Journal. You can access the original article here