Spotlight On... Golden Opportunity

By Rob Montana | Tompkins Weekly | March 13, 2017

Non-profit organizations are plentiful throughout Tompkins County, and make a big impact in our communities. Despite their contributions, area non-profits can sometimes go unnoticed or unknown. In an effort to shine a spotlight on those who are making a difference in our county, Tompkins Weekly will be showcasing these organizations on a regular basis.

This week we are highlighting Golden Opportunity, a tutoring and mentorship non-profit based in Ithaca. To learn more about the organization, we interviewed its executive director, Kolby Harrell.

Tompkins Weekly: What is your mission?
Kolby Harrell: We aim to make quality academic support accessible to all students in our community by providing free, one-on-one tutoring and mentorship to students from low-income families in the Ithaca City School District.

TW: How do you fulfill that mission?
KH: Our Team: We’re incredibly grateful to have an amazing team of passionate tutors, most of whom are retired educators with over 25 years of teaching experience. Our primary focus is on early academic intervention – working with students as young as second grade – and helping them build skills in core academic subjects such as reading, writing and math. While we hope to tame the burden of homework, we certainly don’t want to become a “homework club.” Instead, we empower our students, bring them to self-reward and help them understand how talents and abilities can be developed through hard work, patience and persistence.
Our Culture: At GO we really have a culture of going above and beyond for these kids. Our tutors conduct classroom observations, attend curriculum nights, sit in on parent-teacher conferences and meet at least twice per year with their student’s classroom teacher to set learning goals. In short, we improve student outcomes by bridging expanded (after-school) learning with in-school learning. As a result, our tutors are able to meet students at their current academic level and create a plan that grows with the child.
Our Impact: Each participating student receives 60 hours of one-on-one tutoring support every academic year. That’s really our core mission. In addition, most students begin in second grade and continue with the same tutor throughout elementary school. This continuity of service helps our tutor-student pairs build trust and foster relationships, which creates a safe space for learning, trying new things and advancing the emerging interests of the students. Finally, to complement the academic piece, our tutors serve as mentors, connecting students to enrichment opportunities. Whether it’s tickets to a play, concert or sporting event; visiting a museum; or receiving sponsorship for swimming or music lessons, this added level of support and opportunity transforms how students feel about school and their community.

TW: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces?
KH: One of our biggest challenges, which is the same for other one-to-one programs, is expansion – how do we scale up? We know there is an unmet need in the district, so we’re really working hard to diversify our funding sources to ensure our ability to sustain and expand upon our current reach.
Our tutoring and mentorship program costs about $1,700 per participating student. While this might seem expensive, one can think of it as a dramatic class-size reduction. It would be wildly more expensive to hire more teachers to bring down the teacher-student ratio and allow for more one-on-one support in the classroom. Instead, we rely on teachers to refer students to our program who need a little extra support and offer that individualized attention for two hours per week, after-school, over a 30-week period.
We’re also exploring the option of establishing ourselves as an intermediary. Because we have strong working relationships with teachers and families, we hope to use our position in the community to refer students and families to other resources and opportunities that already exist in Ithaca to help students succeed in and out of the classroom. Ideally, every student who needs additional academic support will have access to that support and no child will “fall through the cracks.”

TW: What is something people do not know about your organization?
KH: Some people don’t realize we’ve been around for over a decade. We were founded in 2005 by retired ICSD elementary school teacher, Marty Kaminsky, serving just four students at two schools. We have since expanded to reach over 70 students in every elementary and middle school in the district.

TW: How can people best support your mission?
KH: Sponsor a Student: Donations are used to directly sponsor students by providing our tutors a modest stipend. We always encourage community members to engage their social circles—colleagues, church communities, neighbors—in our fundraising process by working together to sponsor a student. It’s really a matter of providing scholarships. The generosity of our friends and neighbors ultimately provides scholarships for students to participate in our program and receive one-on-one tutoring and mentorship from experienced educators. The easiest way to give is at gotutors.org/support-go or by sending a check in the mail. We believe this grassroots fundraising sends a strong message to students in our community—we’re here for you, we support you and we want to invest in your success in the classroom and beyond.
Spread the Word: Another way to support our mission is by telling others about the work we do. We haven’t seen this model before – pairing students with retired educators – so there’s a lot of untapped potential for this kind of intergenerational program. Helping us grow community awareness is invaluable.
Get Involved: We also encourage people to get involved. Whether you’re interested in helping organize a fundraising campaign, serving as a volunteer or intern, applying to be a tutor, or simply sharing this article with friends and family, there are plenty of ways to get involved with GO. Visit gotutors.org/contact to start the conversation.

This article originally appeared in a March 2017 issue of Tompkins Weekly. You can access the original article here