Herndon Elementary School's cafeteria was bustling with activity, which wouldn't be so unusual if it wasn't for the fact that it was a Saturday morning.
Approximately 74 high-schoolers and 72 elementary-schoolers had gathered to spend two hours doing, of all things, school work.
For the past nine years, EXCEL — Extra Class Learning — has been bringing the Herndon High students together with their younger counterparts as tutors and mentors.
"We'll get anywhere between 65 to 75 high-school students in here on a Saturday morning, and that's a hard thing to do," said Matt O'Connor, a math teacher at Herndon High. "Having a teen-ager explain something to a youngster is a whole lot different from a 50-year-old man or woman explaining it."
THE PROGRAM was the idea of a former counselor at the elementary school, who came up with the idea after a group of Hispanic parents felt their children needed extra learning time and were unsuccessful doing it themselves, said Gary Gepford, a Herndon High foreign language teacher who coordinates the program from the high-school side.
"We started with 25 kids," Gepford said. "The kids didn't want to work with the adults. They wanted to work with a big buddy."
The program begins after the first quarter and continues on selected Saturdays until the end of the year. It pairs a youngster with a teen-ager, who spends the first hour working on lessons the elementary student's teachers have identified as problem areas. A folder is created for each child, which contains worksheets supplied by the student's teacher. During the second hour, the pair play educational games, read age-appropriate books and have snacks. Throughout the course of the program, the pairings remain the same, allowing the tutors to develop relationships with their young charges, said Jo Ann Shackelford, a reading teacher at the elementary school who helps coordinate the program there.
"As the weeks go on, you see kids holding hands and giving hugs," O'Connor said.
EXCEL is voluntary on both sides, so the specific tutors and students may change from week to week, but for the most part, everybody makes return appearances. And in some cases, said Gepford, the teen goes on to a career in teaching. Gepford said he has a student who started coming to the program as a middle-schooler because his brothers and sisters were tutors. He has since returned to tutor the younger students 45 weeks and counting.
"There are some students here for the [school] credit," Gepford said, "but a majority are not here to get credit."
SHACKELFORD SAID all of the elementary-school students are recommended by their teachers. In some cases the student needs a little extra help in a specific subject. In some cases the student is new to the country and doesn't speak English. And in others, the student just needs someone other than an adult.
"It could be a situation where a child just needs a friend, a mentoring situation," Shackelford said.
As for the teens, some can earn community service credit or credit for a class at school, but there are other reasons too.
"I actually went to elementary school here. It's nice to come back," said Erik Murad, a junior who was volunteering as a tutor for the first time. "It's nice to come back. I don't know if it was this specific program, but I had older kids help me."
"I'm kind of older. I was here once. I understand what it's like," said junior Christian Bolus, who was also volunteering for the first time. "I enjoyed it. I think I'll stick with it."
The program is funded entirely by grants and donations from local community groups including the Herndon Elementary School PTA and Hispanic Business Partners, said Shackelford. The money is used to purchase the books, snacks and games.
In addition, each year the program honors the volunteers and students who came each Saturday with a celebration party and awards a scholarship to the seniors who helped out consistently.