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Trained Tutors Are "Swamp Dogs"

Susan Notes: It's hard to be negative about the good will of students. It's just too bad they are being trained in the "approved government method" for teaching reading. It's also too bad that weaker students aren't encouraged to join. My experience is that it is very effective to enlist older students who are themselves not doing well in school to be tutors.

Cryptic phone messages were being left on Irving Hamer's voice mail over the summer.

''Call us,'' they said. ``We have an idea.''

Hamer, the Miami-Dade school district administrator in charge of rehabilitating the county's chronically failing schools, was overwhelmed trying to draft his plan. But the messages kept coming from two North Miami Senior High students, and Hamer was in need of ideas.

When he heard they planned to pair North Miami students enrolled in one of the world's most aggressive academic programs with third-graders enrolled in one of the city's most desperate elementaries, he was intrigued.

When he read their proposal a few days later, he was amazed.

''The proposal was drop-dead wonderful,'' Hamer said. ``It knocked me off my chair.''

An hour of after-school tutoring was already mandatory four days a week at the elementary, so Hamer decided to give the young tutors a try. He scheduled the Swamp Dogs to run two of those sessions with 40 students.

The North Miami students, juniors Diego Mesa and Justin Chang, went to work. They screened their classmates in the International Baccalaureate program and selected 18 to join them in tutoring struggling third-graders at nearby Myrtle Grove Elementary.


Borrowing the name of their high school mascot, the students called themselves the Swamp Dogs, and they were an instant success.

''Kids show up for tutoring on their off-days,'' said Bernadine Woods-Smith, teacher and reading leader at Myrtle Grove. ``They all want to work with the Swamp Dogs every day.''

This is good news at Myrtle Grove were dozens of third-graders are repeating the grade, locked out of fourth grade because they scored extremely low on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test's reading exam. A few are spending their third year in third grade.

Less than two months into the program, the tutors and the teachers at Myrtle Grove say the students are improving.

''I see them pronouncing words more fluently, and they are getting a better understanding of the stories that they read,'' said Julian Lopera, vice president of the project and one of its first tutors.

More importantly, the students are excited about learning.

''Once you have kids who are eager and willing to learn, it shows in their performance,'' said teacher Woods-Smith. ``I think we've taken a step in the right direction.''

Chang and Mesa developed the idea while working at a fee-based tutoring center and created an application process based on the IB students' academic record and their own FCAT scores.


''I have seen honor societies tutor students in homework assistance programs,'' said Myrtle Grove assistant principal Leonardo Mourino, ``but I have never seen students organize such an elaborate tutoring program to prepare students for the FCAT.''

Lopera said student tutors are carefully selected. ``We don't just choose anybody. . . We basically chose the best and the brightest. . .''

The high school students were trained under America Reads, a national program that prepares tutors to work with low-performing students.

LeapFrog Schoolhouse, a company that manufactures interactive textbooks for young students, donated 40 of its Quantum Pad machines for the third-graders to use at home.

The sessions are scheduled to continue through February, when the FCAT exam is given. They will follow up in April with an ''Academic Olympiad,'' when the Swamp Dogs will split the Myrtle Grove students into teams for a contest and award ceremony.

The Swamp Dogs intend to continue the program next school year, and Hamer is interested in expanding to other schools. ''We just want to reach out to as many people as we can,'' Lopera said.

— Joshua Rohe
Miami Herald


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