Diane Okrent, an Upper East Side resident who serves as president of Congregation Or Zarua and works as a market researcher, was nervous before her first meeting a year ago with a second-grade student in the Bronx.Okrent was going to be Mia’s reading tutor
Part of a group of 20 members of her synagogue who worked with first- and second-graders from PS 92 in the borough’s Tremont section during the 2017-18 school year, Okrent spent a half-hour on Skype each week reading “simple” eBooks with Mia, working on the child’s phonetic skills, and sometimes playing tic-tac-toe or other games.
Okrent’s volunteer activity was coordinated by the Chicago-based Innovations for Learning nonprofit, whose 15-year-old online TutorMate initiative last year brought together some 5,000 pairs of students and adult tutors in 26 cities.The Conservative Or Zarua is the first synagogue to participate in TutorMate, whose earlier volunteers had come from corporations and a handful of civic organizations like the Junior League and United Way.
“Our mission is to fight long-term poverty” by improving people’s reading ability, starting in the early grades, said Dan Weisberg, national director of TutorMate. The program recruits dedicated adults who don’t need to sacrifice a half-day in travel time to and from students’ schools in order to participate, he said.
TutorMate had not reached out to religious congregations, because few have the funds to make the requested donation (about $200 to $300 per volunteer) to take part, but the success of the Or Zarua volunteers will encourage TutorMate to seek out other congregations, Weisberg said.
Okrent, who minored in education in college, took part, with her congregation’s other volunteers, in online training offered by TutorMate.
Before her first tutoring session with Mia (whom Okrent describes as Hispanic, “very sweet,” with pigtails) she had some jitters (“How are we going to get along?”), which disappeared by the end of the first half-hour.
The congregation’s participation in TutorMate was advanced by Rabbi Scott Bolton, Or Zarua’s spiritual leader, who had proposed that members take part in a literacy-training program. Lesley Palmer, who heads the congregation’s Hesed Committee, suggested TutorMate; she had served as a volunteer with the program through the bank where she works.
“A perfect match,” thought Rabbi Bolton, who felt that “the literacy issue is a Jewish issue
“The Talmud teaches us that it is the community’s responsibility to help educate the next generation,” Rabbi Bolton said. “At Congregation Or Zarua, we see that as including our family and our neighbors’ children. We are really doing holy work.”
The rabbi was among Or Zarua’s 20 volunteers (“We got two minyans”), participating in the program every Friday morning.
Most of the PS 92 children are from poor homes, and most of them are Hispanic and African-American.
The students take part in the program at pre-scheduled times, in their classrooms. The tutors Skype from their homes or offices.
“Helping a child is one of the most important things we can do,” Okrent said.
Mia, who had begun the school year with poor reading skills and little confidence, “improved immensely,” Okrent said. “By May,” near the end of the semester, “she was at the top reading level. She had confidence.”
The students and tutors met in person last May, at a party at the school. “She hugged me,” Okrent said. “We sat together and read together and played Hangman.”
Okrent said she will take part in TutorMate again this year.With another student.
Mia has “moved on,” to third grade. “She doesn’t need me,” Okrent said. “I feel wonderful about it.
COURTSEY OF :https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/the-latest-from-the-classroom-and-beyond-5/
PHOTO CREDIT : OR ZARUA