By Ron Leir
EAST NEWARK –
Ambassadors and Knights walk the halls at East Newark Elementary School.
Well, actually, the Ambassadors do a lot of sitting and talking, while the Knights are busy mostly outdoors.
Explanation: the Ambassadors are older students who are part of an experiment to bolster the reading readiness skills of younger children through one-on-one tutoring sessions at the end of the school day.
And the Knights are also part of an elite group: They’re members of the first intramural soccer squad that veteran borough observers can remember functioning in many years, if at all.
Both programs came to life under the watch of Patrick Martin, the new superintendent/ principal of the borough’s only school, although Martin credits school psychologist Shelley Harrison for recommending the student tutorials as a way of breaking through the language barriers that many of the school’s ethnically diverse population face.
Because a significant number come from families whose primary language is something other than English – mostly Spanish and Portuguese – the kids are up against it when it comes to getting English homework help at home, especially if one or both parents are working the night shift, said Jeanine Cruz, now in her 15th year as a basic skills teacher in East Newark.
And that impacts kids’ performance on standardized tests, not only in Language Arts but also in math, since arithmetic word problems can be tricky without a full understanding of the words.
Enter the Ambassadors.
Every Monday to Thursday, from 3 to 4 p.m., nine students from grades 7 and 8 are matched up, individually, with youngsters from grades 1 to 4 and convene in the school cafeteria to work together.
For the first 40 minutes, the younger kids read aloud from a grade-level classroom text to their tutors, who encourage them to sound out a tricky word, break it into syllables and check for comprehension. After a snack, the tutors will spend 20 minutes guiding the younger ones through their reading homework.
Generally, Cruz said, “The little ones are excited to be working with the older students. They feel special. … They see their tutors as positive role models. They’re very chatty and smiling with them.”
“Research shows that [working together] also helps the tutors by boosting their self-esteem,” Harrison said. Several of the tutors have brought in their own smart boards as a resource tool, she noted.
The nine tutors are: Monica Arce, Elijah Brown, Janeth Medieta, Daveed Alberio and Angela Arca, all seventhgraders; and Layza Espichan, Virginia Sacramento, Joselyn Gutierrez and Jenna Vieira, all of grade 8.
The tutorees were selected by classroom teachers while 17 students volunteered to be tutors after getting their parents’ consent and then school staff picked nine, based on high academic performance, teacher recommendations and an interview.
Eighth-grader Virginia Sacramento, who is tutoring a third-grader, said she’s happy to have been chosen because, “I love leading people in different things,” even though, she said, people tend not to see her in that light.
Even before, she said, “I was helping some of the kids in class with math, even though I don’t always understand a problem. I enjoy trying to work it out.” (A tutor training worksheet that school staff share with the students advises: “Always ask a teacher for help if you need it.”)
Fellow tutor Elijah Brown, a seventh-grader, recalled how sometimes, when he was younger, he and his older sister “played the game of teacher. On days when I was sick and not in school, she’d pull me aside for two hours and start teaching me.”
Had he resented her intervention? No way, said Elijah, also a member of the school’s Pre-Chemistry Club. “Without her, a lot of the knowledge I have today, I wouldn’t have.”
As he’s working with his fourth-grader, he uses his smart board to “write out a word and separate it into its different parts,” along with how words sound. Elijah believes his tutoree is “getting better” with his help. And, he said, “I’m very grateful because I’m doing something that’s actually useful instead of just reading myself.”
Then there are the Knights, formed at Martin’s behest, both to offer some measure of intra-scholastic athletic competition in soccer and as a morale builder for middle schoolers.
Thirty-three kids from grades 6, 7 and 8 took up the challenge, even though “very few” of them had previously played the sport, according to coach Michael Caravalho, the school’s physical education instructor and a volunteer coach for the Kearny Kardinals Junior Varsity soccer team for the past three years.
Why soccer and why so many? “That’s what the kids want,” said Martin, “so they flock to it.”
The kids play – so far, only among themselves – at the borough’s soccer field next to Borough Hall, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 4 to 5 p.m., but that could change soon. The Harrison school district has offered the use of its turf field for middle school soccer play, thereby suggesting the possibility of inter-scholastic play for the first time.