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LEarning to teach, teaching to learn: an imaginative tutoring program for the kids of Cabrini-Green



Sixteen-year-old Latoya Dawson comes home to an apartment in Cabrini-Green after classes at Whitney Young Magnet High School. She drops off her math and biology books and picks up her handbook of teaching guidelines. Now it's her turn to be the teacher.

Dawson is one of 48 teenagers from Cabrini-Green who spend their after-school hours tutoring grade school children from the massive housing project. She's a member of the Junior Staff at CYCLE (Community Youth Creative Learning Experience), a little-known organization that's been quietly working in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood for more than 23 years to help local children learn to read and write.

CYCLE was started in 1963 by Sunday school teachers at the nearby LaSalle Street Church who realized that many of their students from Cabrini-Green couldn't read. The concerned teachers began to tutor students Sunday mornings after services.

The children, kindergartners to l2th-graders, would cluster with their tutors in groups of two or three in the sanctuary pews, on the altar platform, in the basement--any niche they could find--and spend an hour on reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Today, the tutoring program is no less necessary than it was in 1963. A study by Designs for Change Inc., a nonprofit research and child-advocacy program, found that nearly half the ninth-grade students in Chicago public schools in 1981 did not graduate--with the dropout rate climbing to 56 percent or higher, in mostly black or Hispanic schools. Of the graduates, two-thirds left high school reading below the national 12th-grade norm and one-third reading at or below the 8th-grade norm. In the fall of 1983, this same study reported, only 25 percent of Chicago's then ninth-graders could read at grade level, compared with 50 percent of ninth-graders nationwide.

Faced with these dismal statistics, CYCLE continues to focus on academics. In the past nine years, however, since forming a board of directors and hiring a full-time executive director, its scope has broadened considerably. It now offers leadership training, vocational guidance, and recreational activities--plus some brand-new programs geared for Cabrini's adults--all carried out in a distinctly Christian atmosphere.

Because many foundations won't donate to church-related organizations, the program's religious aspects have been played down. About seven years ago, CYCLE incorporated with a not-for-profit status and became independent of the church. There is, however, still an obvious Christian leaning in CYCLE's agenda. The junior and senior high school training booklet for tutors quotes Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it"; and Deuteronomy 11:18-19: "You shall therefore lay up these of mine in your heart and in your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house and when you are walking by the way, and you lie down, and when you rise." But the booklet also cautions overzealous volunteers: "No cramming of the Gospel down the kids' throats . . . "

Three years ago, CYCLE and a small Quaker church group jointly purchased (for $100) a modest three-story brick building from the Catholic archdiocese; CYCLE and the Quakers share the building. Practically in the shadow of the looming high-rise projects across the street, the old former schoolhouse at 515 W. Oak St. looks shabby; but the building is basically sturdy, and rehabbing costs were kept to a minimum by volunteer workers.

The first afternoon I visited CYCLE, feeling vaguely apprehensive about my safety, I was grateful to find a parking place immediately in front of the building. I was let in by a polite black teenage boy who pointed the way to the CYCLE office and Greg Darnieder, CYCLE's director for the past nine years.

"One of the first things I did when I came on here at CYCLE was to formalize the tutoring program," said Darnieder, a 37-year-old former public school teacher. "We divided up the kids into three groups--grades one through five, sixth through eighth, and senior high school--with each group meeting at a different time. That way we could better manage the program and target it for specific age groups.

"But we want to do more than help them learn to read and write," he said. "We want to foster indigenous leadership, so about two years later we developed what may be the most important program at CYCLE, the Junior Staff."

The Junior Staff, he explained, is the heart of CYCLE. Teenagers from the community, like Latoya Dawson, they have gone through the program themselves and are now paid slightly over minimum wage to tutor, teach creative arts classes, supervise learning labs, chaperon outings, and lead a host of other activities.

They "contract" at the beginning of the school year to keep their own grades at or above a specified minimum, and they are required to attend regular seminars on childhood educational development taught by a qualified educator.

Their jobs, Darnieder said, give them a chance to exercise their inherent abilities. At the same time, the supervisory staff helps them work on their personal weak areas, such as work habits or job follow-through.

Darnieder believes the tutors also serve as excellent role models to the younger children. "In a place like Cabrini," he said, "there are so many negative role models for the kids to follow, like gang members and pimps. They desperately need to see some positive role models."

Many educators support this view of the tutor as role model. They believe that peer tutoring, or more accurately, cross-age tutoring, as is done by the Junior Staff members at CYCLE, can be extremely beneficial to both the tutor and the pupil. In fact, some educators think that the benefits to the tutor far outweigh the benefits to the pupil.

Studies in New York City in the early 1960s, for example, showed these remarkable benefits: high school students who tutored fourth- and fifth-graders in reading gained 3.4 years in their own reading ability in seven months.

Not only did their reading scores improve, but the tutors got more interested in academics in general, and their feelings of personal worth soared. And this enhanced motivation and self-esteem improved their classroom behavior. Similar results occurred in tutoring programs in Newark, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

In addition to the Junior Staff, CYCLE has instituted other programs to encourage indigenous leadership. For example, the organization is currently offering scholarships ranging from $500 to $1,000 to participating grade school, high school, and college students, in hopes that some might agree to come on board for one year as full-time paid CYCLE staff members when they finish college.

"We already have one student who has agreed to spend a year with us--Pat Ford, who will graduate from Bradley University in May. Pat will be involved with academic programming and volunteer training and recruitment," said Darnieder. "It's this kind of local leadership that I want to see developed. There's nothing I'd like more than to find someone from the community who could eventually take over my position."

Working for a cause seems always to have been a priority for Darnieder. A graduate of Saint Louis University with a degree in sociology, he went on to complete a master's degree in Christian ministries at Wheaton College. He has worked extensively in inner-city education: five years at Providence House Youth Ministries Center in Saint Louis, three as a junior high school teacher, and five in Washington, D.C., as the volunteer director of the American Freedom From Hunger Foundation preceded his nine years at CYCLE.

These days, though, he does less teaching and more and more fundraising, one of his least favorite duties. Most of CYCLE's budget comes from private and government grants, corporations, foundations, individual gifts, and churches. "I used to only have to wear a suit and tie once in a while, but lately I have to dress up nearly once a week."

What Darnieder likes best about working at CYCLE is the freedom to implement new ideas like the Junior Staff. "That freedom is lacking in the public school system, and it's so frustrating," he said. "It's so hard to get things changed at inner-city schools."

Even now, Darnieder is developing several new programs, these for adults in the community. They include literacy courses, a high school dropout program, and a job-preparation program. They grew out of a high school equivalency degree course started about three years ago.

Besides the freedom he enjoys to implement new ideas, Darnieder has another explanation for his commitment to CYCLE. "I'm working here because I'm aware that this is where God has put me at this point in time," he said. "My own spiritual journey is part of the reason why I stay."

Darnieder puts in long days at CYCLE doing almost every imaginable task, from picking up and taking kids home in one of the several dilapidated vans to painting hallway floorboards the night before a scheduled visit from potential donors.

But helping the kids from Cabrini makes it all worth it. "The need in this community is tremendous," he said, painting a picture with statistics. "Seventy-six percent of the people living in Cabrini earn less than $9,862 a year, the government-established poverty line. Eighty-four percent of the households are on welfare or social security. Only 14 percent of the working population is employed. And more than 90 percent of the households are headed by a single mother."

These realities take their toll. "Unfortunately," Darnieder said, "we end up having to expel some kids. We ask for a regular commitment to be here every week, and on time, too, and some kids just can't make it. My heart really goes out to them because they're so messed up--sometimes it's drug abuse, child abuse, family violence, or whatever. But we're not equipped to handle them."

But there are plenty of other kids whose feet are set firmly enough on the ground for CYCLE to help. Approximately 350 children currently attend the tutoring program. They come to get more education or prepare for jobs. And for other reasons, Darnieder said. "They come because they enjoy it. They come because of the relationships they establish with their tutors and the staff. For a couple of hours every week, there is someone there just for them."

Mr. and Mrs. Emil Logan are two of CYCLE's 175 volunteer tutors. On a Thursday afternoon in April, they leave their comfortable home on a peaceful, well-tended street in Park Ridge and drive to an area in Chicago reputed to be one of the city's five most gang-infested neighborhoods. They've made the same trip every Thursday for the past five years.

A handsome, ruddy man exuding vigorous Scandinavian health, Emil Logan comes to CYCLE to tutor six-year-old Cecil.

Impatiently, Cecil races through his work, which is to identify similar vowel sounds in words represented by simple pictures. Logan praises him when he's right but frequently tells the boy to look again and say the words out loud. Cecil's feet kick rhythmically against a desk leg as he furrows his brow.

Across the room, Olive Logan, a trim, neatly dressed woman with graying hair, is seated holding a book, her arm around a little girl. She listens intently as Shirelle, whose head is festooned with long cornrow braids, reads short sentences with quiet pride.

Tutoring sessions like these, which start at about 3:30 PM, are going on throughout the building. The hum of soft voices blends with the clanking of steam radiators. Most of the volunteer tutors come from local colleges; some, like the Logans, come from the suburbs, and some are recruited from neighborhood churches.

Whether tutors are volunteers or members of the Junior Staff, they are required to keep a record of their weekly tutoring sessions--a brief note to indicate the child's progress and difficulties, and plans for future sessions. The volunteer tutors get little formal training when they begin. They do receive an introductory booklet appropriate to the age of their assigned student and some brief instructions. However, CYCLE's full-time paid staff, which now numbers ten, is always available for tutors' questions and problems.

On the second floor is CYCLE's popular computer lab, one of staff member Mary Beth Rowley's responsibilities. Rowley holds a master's degree in teaching from the National College of Education in Evanston. "I don't think computers are a substitute for one-on-one tutoring, but they certainly serve as a reinforcement. Everything on the computers is also in textbooks, but I think because it's a different format it's more appealing than a textbook."

The children sit attentively at their terminals concentrating fiercely as they type out their answers, which are scored immediately to the sound of their pleased gasps or disgusted moans.

Each child may sign up for time at one of the ten Apple II computers or at one of the five Texas Instruments models; two IBM computers used by CYCLE's office staff are also available to the older students.

Steven Gayles, 18 years old, is a junior at Near North Magnet High School. He says the computer programs help him study English and math. "And there's even a program that helps me fix cars."

At 5 PM, study time is over for the grade-schoolers, and it's time for fun. The children assemble in a large, carpeted room. Seated on the floor, they sing, play games, and watch the Junior Staff's hastily rehearsed skits (which are often enhanced by liberal doses of shaving cream). The evening ends with a reading of a short Bible story.

Tomorrow, more volunteers and more members of the Junior Staff will come here to tutor. Apparently all their hard work is paying off: 65 percent of the students, third through eighth grades, are achieving above, at, or within two months of their grade levels; tests show gains by as much as 3.6 years in a single year in reading and math; 95 percent of the Junior Staff graduates are in four-year colleges or have jobs.

Good news; but is it enough? "No, of course it's not enough," said one volunteer. "And if you're looking for dramatic successes, you're not going to see it. But what you're doing can't hurt, and it just might help."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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