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Urban-Suburban Connection

March 5, 2007
By GREGORY SEAY, Courant Staff Writer

When pupils at Hartford's McDonough Elementary take up pencils this morning to begin the state mastery test, a group of students from Farmington High will be rooting for them.

For the second year in a row, tutors from the suburban school have spent every Monday afternoon for most of the past two months coaching their younger peers in one of the city's most troubled grade schools to extract the most from their reading and math skills.

A year ago, McDonough students' Connecticut Mastery Test scores improved noticeably after some coaching from Farmington students, school officials say.

"I'm expecting they will make a difference. ... They will do well," McDonough Principal Tina Jeter said.

The pupil-to-pupil link between Farmington High and McDonough programs is one of a growing number of connections between Connecticut's suburban and urban schools.

The connections aim to give students in both communities the opportunity to reinforce what they've learned in the classroom but also provide an outlet to exchange cultures, helping to break stereotypes, proponents say.

The Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) says it promotes those links for just such benefits. Farmington is one of a number of school districts that have gotten grants from CREC to conduct tutoring programs regionwide.

"This is one of the programs that has been highly successful," said Bruce Douglas, CREC's executive director.

For the past three years, Ellington High students have been tutoring East Hartford kindergartners. Students from Regional Hebron-Andover-Marlborough High School tutor East Hartford sixth-graders.

Thirty-six students at DiLoreto Magnet School, a kindergarten-Grade 5 school in New Britain, have met at least four times during the school year with Spanish-language students at Avon High for an immersion in culture and language, said Danae Stromberg, a DiLoreto instructor involved in the diversity program.

"They all enjoy it," Stromberg said.

Farmington High began its program two years ago, taking about 30 students to Annie Fisher School in Hartford in 2005. There are now 90 FHS students in the program now.

After one year at Annie Fisher, McDonough's former principal convinced the high school to bring its program to her school, which at the time was labeled "in need of improvement" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, largely because of poor scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test.

Farmington tutors and their advisers crafted a lesson plan focused on the weaknesses of the McDonough students exposed by the CMT, said Patricia Phelan, the former McDonough principal who is now principal of Oliver Ellsworth Elementary in Windsor. Phelan's husband, Jack, is director of athletics at Farmington High.

According to Patricia Phelan, the high school students are as much role models as they are tutors.

"We wanted them to see students who were getting ready to finish high school and go off to college," she said.

On a blustery afternoon in mid-January, about 60 Farmington students and 48 McDonough sixth-graders gathered in the Hartford school's cafeteria doing math drills.

A quick snack of fruit juice and popcorn, paid for with the grant, helped boost the energy level in the room.

In an upstairs classroom, a much smaller group did reading comprehension exercises - one of the skills the CMT is designed to measure. This was the first year Farmington students tutored McDonough pupils to dissect words and sentences to grasp their meaning.

The Hartford pupils have varying levels of reading skills, but those in the program are there with the permission of a parent or guardian.

"These kids are dying for the extra attention," said Chris Redden, a fifth-grade instructor at McDonough.

Sophomore tutor Ashley Palmisano did her best to guide her fifth-grade partner, Michael, through reading a story about an orphaned gorilla.

"Good job," Palmisano said as Michael finished reading a passage out loud.

Now, for the dictionary. She asked him to look up the meaning of several words he just read: "authority," "fragile" and "orphan."

To qualify for the program, Ashley and her fellow tutors attended three training sessions at the high school in November. The only requirement was that none of the participants miss those sessions; one student did and was booted.

"We open it up to all kids who want to help students," said program coordinator Kristi Ohanesian.

Palmisano, 16, who is doing her first stint as a tutor, said she was encouraged by her parents to read. With Michael, she said, the nudging he gets to open a book comes from his 14-year-old sister.

"I really like reading. It's one of my passions," she said. "To be able to teach someone else to read just seems so exciting."

Junior Chris Lau returned for a second stint at McDonough because he found it fulfilling to tutor a student whose math skills were so weak that he used his fingers to count. But it was frustrating at times, Lau said.

"Sometimes I felt like he wasn't paying attention," he said.

This year, as part of the reading group, Lau said it has been encouraging to watch his fifth-grade partner Larissa expand her good reading skills by improving her vocabulary and comprehension.

Lau, whose younger sister Juliana joined as a math tutor, said he plans to be back in his senior year at McDonough.

"It's nice, I guess, that we actually helped out," Lau said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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