On a Thursday evening in early March, masked students at Syracuse’s North Side Learning Center gather in classrooms to connect with volunteer tutors, who provide support remotely through a program launched at Syracuse University. For North Side Executive Director Mark Cass ’80, seeing the kids engaged with their schoolwork is a huge relief in the wake of the past year’s uncertainties. “It’s been unusual but really energizing here,” he says. “Everyone’s done a tremendous job, and there’s a real spirit of helping each other.”
Last spring, when the pandemic forced school districts nationwide to shift to virtual learning, many students found themselves in an online wilderness where they struggled to survive academically. At the North Side Learning Center—which provides tutoring and other services for members of the resettled refugee and immigrant community—students faced immense challenges. Some lacked home internet connectivity or struggled to master online platforms. Many shouldered family responsibilities, including overseeing the schoolwork of younger siblings, and found themselves without quiet space where they could work uninterrupted. Meanwhile, English language learners and others who depend on individual tutoring suddenly faced gaps in their academic support system.
Through his work at the center, Brice Nordquist, associate professor of writing and rhetoric and Dean’s Professor of Community Engagement in the College of Arts and Sciences , shared the North Side staff’s concerns about getting students through the semester, especially those who were close to graduation. “How are we going to keep them from falling off the map?” he wondered.
A Community Effort Grows
Nordquist turned to the University’s Office of Community Engagement and connected with Emily Winiecki G’15, who serves as community engagement coordinator. They put out a call to the campus community for remote tutors, and the response was overwhelming. In very little time, they developed a protocol and digital infrastructure for the program and matched 50 students with volunteers for one-on-one tutoring. The initiative continued through the summer and expanded last fall to other community-based organizations in neighborhoods throughout the city. “These partner agencies are doing the work, all day, every day,” Winiecki says. “They are the amazing stars here.”
Over a dozen organizations—including the Dunbar Center, Mercy Works, La Casita Cultural Center and the Syracuse City School District’s English as a New Language (ENL) department—are now involved in the partnership. At La Casita—an off-campus program of the College of Arts and Sciences that engages in cultural and educational activities with the Central New York Hispanic community—all in-person youth programs had been halted. Tere Paniagua ’82, executive director of the Office of Cultural Engagement for the Hispanic Community, welcomed the remote tutoring program as “an incredible resource.” She especially values the connections established between students and bilingual tutors. “The schooling of our kids is so important, and to support our community in this way means so much,” she says.
Nicole Pacateque ’21 has volunteered and worked on the staff at La Casita throughout her time as an undergraduate. She loves working with children and virtually tutors an elementary school girl. “I look forward to seeing her every Wednesday, and I think she looks forward to it, too,” says the psychology and sociology major. “We’re able to bond over our Puerto Rican heritage. It’s always fun, and I use the tutoring hours to help her with things she doesn’t want to do alone.”
Supporting English Language Learners
As a language assessor with the school district’s ENL department, Elizabeth Deng works with refugee and immigrant students who are new to the community. While many of the students pick up English at a social level, they need to learn academic English to succeed in the classroom. Some students’ formal educations were disrupted before they arrived here, so they missed out on foundational academics. “They may be at a place where they’re still doing third- or fourth-grade level English or math and now they find themselves in an algebra class,” she says. “That’s a big gap to fill.”
Last fall, Deng connected about 40 students to the remote tutoring program. “The tutoring has been successful because they know they will get that one-on-one support they need,” she says. “The routine of the tutoring plays an important role. If students are struggling, they know they have something consistent to depend on.”
This semester, the department created drop-in tutoring sessions with high schools and hopes to support about 50 additional students. Deng praises Nordquist and Winiecki for their collaborative work in forging these relationships. “It’s amazing to see the community support and to have the support from Brice and Emily,” she says.
Nicole Fonger, an assistant professor of mathematics and mathematics education in the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Education , is tutoring ENL students from Henninger High School. “I try to understand how the student is making sense of mathematics,” says Fonger, who does research on how students learn math. Since math has its own language, she says it can be confusing for ENL students to understand various terms—they may recognize “table” as a piece of furniture, but not as a way to structure data. Fonger wants to build trust with the students and provide positive reinforcement. “It’s really important to celebrate their successes and support them in seeing themselves as capable and confident in doing math,” she says.
The remote tutoring program now counts nearly 400 volunteers who’ve worked with more than 300 students since the initiative began. It’s provided partners with tablets for student use. It has expanded regionally and now fields requests from individual students and families, and it holds 10 grade-level and subject-area support sessions each week. Most important, the students are excelling—across grade levels and schools, Nordquist says. “It’s made a tremendous difference.”
Nordquist and Winiecki have hosted seemingly countless volunteer orientation sessions, and they marvel at the tutors’ willingness to connect and bond with students, whether by sharing conversations, encouraging them to think about college or relating their own online learning experiences. “They’re going well beyond the call of duty needed to connect with the students,” Winiecki says. “We want folks to build relationships, which are super key for students.”
From her home in Chicago, alumna Vanessa Rojas-Castillo ’18, G’19 volunteers a few hours a week as a virtual tutor. “Talking with the students, I’ve noticed they don’t really feel comfortable having personal conversations with the teacher over Zoom,” says Rojas-Castillo, who helped out at the North Side during her Syracuse days. “This is probably the only conversation the students get to have about their homework. When they don’t have that interaction on a regular basis, it makes the tutoring a bit more special.”
Katie Miles ’24, a double major in linguistics and modern foreign languages, remotely tutors middle school students, primarily helping them with Spanish but providing assistance in other subjects as well. “It’s really fun to work one-on-one with the students,” she says. “I knew there was a big need, and I like knowing that I’m a part of making sure they still get their education.”
The diverse tutoring pool represents both a wealth of expertise and those who want to help out any way they can. There are parents, retired teachers and other professionals, as well as numerous volunteers from area colleges and universities. Students from colleges across the country have signed on after learning about the program through word of mouth and online platforms like Handshake. “It has created a network of learning communities that previously didn’t exist,” Nordquist says.
That expertise also led the program to extend learning opportunities and offer enrichment workshops. Felicia Otero, director of admissions at Falk College , recognizes many students are unfamiliar with the college application process. To help guide them, she teamed up with a Higher Education Opportunity Program administrator, three faculty advisors and three local Syracuse undergraduates to record an online workshop in which they offered advice and shared their experiences. “Part of the big message is we like working with students and helping them from beginning to end. There are interests, abilities and clues when we talk to students about what might make them happy,” she says. “The workshop was a great opportunity for students who need a little bit of advice to start because it’s low stress, low risk.”
Last fall, English professor Bruce Smith introduced students in the creative writing M.F.A. program to the project through the course Writing in the Community. The work inspired creative writing graduate student Jacob Gedetsis ’18, G’21 to extend the partnership with the remote tutoring network. He organized a dozen of his classmates to host weekly creative writing workshops for the North Side, La Casita, Girls Inc. at YWCA Syracuse and the Center for Community Alternatives. Through online and in-person appearances, the team is sparking imaginations and showing students that writing can be a fun way to express themselves, not just something they have to do for class. “There’s always community built into writing,” he says. “We feel lucky to share in that community with local students.”
Smith says it’s essential that the M.F.A. team builds relationships and trust with the students and be committed to the project. While Smith believes writers need an internal gaze to produce empathetic and moving works, “part of it also is looking out and around at your immediate environment in that way,” he says. “And I think that’s what this project can do. Our students don’t have to look far to find the connection with the immediate community in Syracuse.”
Inspiring Students to Succeed
In a North Side classroom, Joyce Suslovic G’78 works with high school students and connects them with remote tutors. “Not only are the students getting one-on-one assistance, but they’re getting the idea that people they may never see in person are volunteering and care about them,” says Suslovic, who retired in January after more than four decades of teaching. “That’s been such an inspiration for our students.”
One of those students is Henninger senior Mohamed Roble. Last fall, he had trouble understanding assignments online and nearly gave up, but eventually turned to the center for tutoring help. This semester, he’s excelling and even helping some of his classmates. “When I started, I thought it was going to get tougher,” he says, “but when I got used to it, it was not that tough. The work gets easier.”
Noah Goldmann ’21, a math and environmental policy major, volunteers once a week at the center as a high school math tutor. “I love it,” he says. “When I’m helping the students with math, it’s a good way for me to put what I’m learning into practice.”
North Side Learning Center Associate Director Kofi Addai is impressed by how much the students have overcome and how they have grown from the experience. He’s also grateful for the collaboration and support the tutoring program has provided to the North Side and other community organizations. “It’s been amazing to see where we started and where we are now,” he says. “When we started, we didn’t know how everything was going to turn out.”
For middle-schooler Maryam Adam, it has turned out very well. “I feel comfortable with a tutor,” says Adam, who finds the remote tutoring especially useful with her science course. “It helps me because I sometimes struggle in my class Living Environment because I’m only in eighth grade taking a ninth-grade course.” And it’s clear that she’s dedicated to succeeding.