Literacy Corps leaves mark on tutors, students


Alaa Abudarb moved to the U.S. from Iraq when he was 10 years old. Abudarb, junior at Webster University, just started his second year with Student

MEGAN FAVIGNANO/ The Journal. Alaa Abudarb reads with an English as a second language student at Bayless High School on August 19 — his first day tutoring this school year. This is his second year with Student Literacy Corps

Literacy Corps (SLC) on campus. Last year, the first child he tutored was a 10-year-old immigrant from Iraq.

“I told him America is a land of opportunity. If you are smart, you can do it.” Abudarb said. “It’s like a dream come true.”

The SLC program began in 1990 as a field experience course in Webster’s School of Education. Several years later, it expanded to involve non-School of Education majors, like Abudarb who is a health care management major. In 2001, SLC allowed students to tutor for their federal work-study.

Abudarb said the student was good at math, and he encouraged him to pursue that. He added that the student improved as the year went on.

This school year, Abudarb will tutor students in an English as a second language class (ESL) at Bayless High School at I-55 and Bayless. His first day was Monday, Aug. 19. He will also return to tutor at the International Welcome School this year.

Kate Northcott, SLC director, said since the program began it has grown in an “unexpected way.” Northcott said about half of the tutors are education majors.  The program has tutors from every school within Webster and averages 50 students a semester.

SLC works with about 25 schools and programs, with mentees ranging from elementary school students to adults. Of that 25, a great number are ESL classes.

“We have a lot of tutors who themselves came here as a kid and English is a second language for them,” Northcott said. “They have tremendous empathy for cultural adaptation and how far away from home they (the students) are.”

Abudarb said he didn’t have tutors or help when he came to America. He struggled with reading and writing.

“There was nobody from my country to help me out.” Abudarb said. “I felt like I was lost, especially during test time,”

Northcott said tutors work one-on-one to help build confidence of the people they tutor. Reading in front of the class can be nerve-racking, even when a child is a good reader. But when a child struggles with reading, Northcott said, it becomes terrifying for them.

“It’s that connection that drives that (confidence). They (the students) feel safe,” Northcott said.

Last year, Webster did a study to evaluate the SLC Program. Webster contacted new, current and former tutors, as well as principals and teachers from schools who had worked with the student tutors. The results, which were published in December 2012, stated a majority of teachers surveyed reported noticing an increase in the confidence, motivation and reading ability of students who worked with Webster tutors.

Northcott came to Webster in 2001, specifically to work with the SLC program. In her time, she has seen several student tutors hired at the schools they once tutored at through SLC. Michelle Steele is one of those students.

Steele graduated from Webster in May with a bachelor’s degree in special education. She tutored with SLC for almost two years. During that time, she mainly worked with the Soulard School — the same school that hired her when she graduated. She gives SLC and Northcott credit for where she is today.

“She (Northcott) is truly an example of how one person touches the lives of many and that ripple effect that occurs because of it,” Steele said. “She has made me a better teacher. The experience made me a better teacher. It also made me a better mother and a better person. That’s why I hold it in such high esteem.”

Steele said she learned a great deal about the Soulard School when she tutored there. She described teachers at the school as “child-centric.”

“I fell in love with that school. Its philosophy, its makeup, the teachers,” Steele said. “I ended up volunteering time beyond my tutoring, because I just loved these people I loved these kids.”

Steele’s daughter is going into fourth grade at Soulard this fall. She transferred there during Christmas break last school year.

“All those things fall in place for a reason,” Steele said. “I met Kate, who has turned into one of my greatest supporters and friends; I tutored in Soulard; I met this group of teachers; I made connections. My child attends that school now. I teach there now. It’s just been an utter positive 180 spin in my life. I owe it to the literacy corps and to Kate.”

Abudarb said his tutoring experience has made him consider teaching.

“I really like teaching now,” Abudarb said. “It gave me a reward to see that I made a difference in their (the students) lives.”

Northcott said she has seen students switch to education majors after tutoring. She encourages students who enjoy the program to consider teaching.

“If this is feeling fulfilling for you, then you owe it to yourself to investigate,” Northcott said.

Abudarb said he hopes to inspire students to continue their education, even if they aren’t from the United States. He said tutoring gives him the opportunity to do so, which is why he is continuing tutoring this year.

“I was just so happy to help as much as I can,” Abudarb said. “I just want to tell them you can make it. If I did, you can too.”

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