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Volunters Who Level the Playing Field

Reston needs more volunteers like Dale Dunlop who helps students learn.

Not long ago, Reston resident Dale Dunlop taught Juan, a student he tutors at the Laurel Learning Center, how to solve an especially tricky type of math problem.

The next day at school, Juan was the only student in his fifth grade class capable of adding fractions — a remarkable feat considering students like Juan face challenges many of his classmates at Forest Edge Elementary School do not.

“He felt so good about himself after that,” Dunlop said. “You get that kind of feedback, it feels pretty good.”

Dunlop is one of a handful of regular volunteers with the Laurel Learning Center’s after-school homework program, which partners adult tutors with elementary school students. Most of the students tutored come from low-income households, and more than a few live in the Embry Rucker Shelter.

Almost every day after school lets out, Dunlop meets the students at the center in Reston and helps walk them through their homework. In many cases, if the students did not attend the homework tutoring sessions, the homework would simply not get done.

And that’s out of the question, Dunlop said, because if the students at the Laurel Learning Center fail to get educated, they will never break out of the cycle of poverty.

Dunlop typically teaches math skills and notes that if a student at the center fails to acquire the basic skills in elementary school, he or she will lag behind.

“Math doesn’t care if you’re black or white,” he said. “You’re either right or your wrong. If you miss one part of it, you’re doomed. If you don’t pick up multiplication tables, it’ll turn you right back around.”

THE CENTER is seeking more volunteers to help the children with their studies and to have a positive influence on their lives, said Brent Park, director of school-age programs at the Laurel Learning Center.

With the current ratio of tutors to students, most of the children are not getting enough of one-on-one attention, which is crucial to academic success, Park said.

“The need is so incredible,” he said. “The care that outside people bring in makes such a difference.”

The challenges the students at the center face seem staggering. Many are illiterate. Many come from single-parent households. Many have problems concentrating or controlling their impulses.

But the tutoring program, and others like it at the Laurel Learning Center, appears to have made a significant impact on the students' lives.

Students who receive regular attention from tutors have shown substantial improvement in grades and their overall attitude toward education.

“It shows that people care about them and that they can better their lives,” Park said.