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The Learning Coaches

Across the city, tutors work with students to help Alexandria students meet the grade.

Algebra equations clogged the whiteboard in room 118 at Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center. The school day had already concluded, but Jimmy was struggling with percentages even as the afternoon sun formed long orange shadows across the numbers. Although Jimmy was in Dean Munson’s classroom, he was being taught by someone else — Torg Anderson, a volunteer who spends one day a week at Minnie Howard helping students slog through algebra problems.

“This is the numerator,” reminded Anderson as Jimmy typed digits into his calculator.

“Oh. I think I get it,” said Jimmy as he grabbed the marker to write out the answer. “Our new X is 24994.52.”

“You just need to slow down and write everything out,” said Anderson. “I know you want to rush through everything, but you’re going to have to slow down a little bit if you want to get this down.”

ANDERSON IS A research associate with the Institute for Defense Analyses, an Alexandria-based research center focusing on defense and scientific issues. The institute has a relationship with Munson’s algebra students, and it gives its employees paid leave to travel to the school and spend one-on-one time with kids who need a little extra help. The tutoring initiative is one of many in Alexandria, where hundreds of volunteer tutors help students learn..

“There are a lot of students who need this kind of individual attention,” said Anderson after the tutoring session had concluded. “And many of them already have the skills to do the work, they’re just missing part of the process.”

Anderson admitted that the first time he walked into a classroom, he felt more than a little intimidated. Would he remember how to solve for X? What if he couldn’t explain the solutions? Eventually, he overcame the fears and took on the task of working with students. He has been tutoring at Minnie Howard since October, and he said the experience is one that he values tremendously.

“I would tell those who are thinking about volunteering that this is something you’ll find extremely personally rewarding,” said Anderson. “When you see the progression, you’ll feel like you are really contributing something important.”

SEVERAL DIFFERENT kinds of tutors are in the city’s classrooms every day, helping students in everything from advanced chemistry to basic reading. Some, like the employees from the Institute for Defense Analyses, have direct relationships with teachers. Others, like the members of the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium, have more of a formalized relationship with the school system.

“Being able to give one-on-one attention to a child is the best gift that you can give,” said Ann Herlin, a tutor with the consortium and member of its board of directors. “There’s a great need out there, and finding new volunteers is our biggest challenge.”

The consortium was founded in 1997 by the Rev. Gary Charles, who was then pastor of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, when he heard about the school system’s Primary Initiative, a citywide effort to ensure that all Alexandria first- and second-grade students can read at or above grade level. Charles decided to partner with the city schools and create a program that united local faith communities to provide reading tutors. Today, members of the consortium represent more than 20 faith communities whose members have served more than 800 students in the last 10 years. Last month, the City Council passed a proclamation honoring the organization for its work in the community.

“The more time you can spend reading with one or two children, the better chance they have of catching up to their peers who’ve been read to since infancy,” said Kris Clark, executive director of elementary programs for the city school system. “I am so impressed that this consortium has not waited to be asked or told what our children need.”

Consortium leaders say that 75 students still need tutors this school year, and they ask that anyone interested in volunteering give the organization a call and fill out an application form. Three levels of training are available, and tutors have access to donated books from A Likely Story Bookstore on King Street.

“The dedication, time and effort provided by the volunteers form our member congregations are central to this program,” said James Roberts, chairman of the consortium’s board of directors. “We cannot thank our tutors enough.”