Last winter, after the pandemic interrupted their science teaching to pupils in Lancaster School District’s three elementary schools, students in Franklin & Marshall College’s science outreach program decided to return remotely in the fall with tutoring and clubhouses.
The effort of about 16 students in the class of Tim Bechtel, director of F&M Science Outreach and teaching professor of geosciences, has been enormously successful with the schoolchildren, said Justin Reese, principal at Buchanan Elementary School.
“Over half of the entire population of students from Buchanan alone (305) have been receiving tutoring, attending clubhouses, and interacting with the incredible students from F&M,” Reese said. “Not only are they going above and beyond, but the lessons and activities that the F&M students have created and worked with have been incredible.”
The F&M students began the start of November, following nearly two months of planning under Bechtel’s direction. While they officially finished at Thanksgiving, many of the students, including the two organizers of the programs, continue to teach even though their semester is completed.
“The kids are still in school up to December 22nd,” said Valerie Romero, a junior psychology and economics major who organized the tutoring. “Just looking at stability and not wanting the kids to fall out of routine, the teachers were really pushing for us to tutor up to the 22nd.”
Several of the students were unable to tutor after F&M’s semester ended, but Romero and Marnina Seller, the clubhouse organizer, were able to recruit volunteers who were not students in Bechtel’s class.
In addition to Buchanan, the students tutor and conduct clubhouses at Burrowes and Wharton elementary schools. Before the pandemic, they went into the schools once a week, prepared with lesson plans, and taught.
“With the pandemic, we weren’t able to go in, and the kids were falling behind, so I had the idea of purposing more one-on-one tutoring rather than trying to come up with a lesson plan for one class,” Romero said. “It just seemed a lot easier and it was an interest of mine to work one-on-one with kids, to build relationships with them.”
Romero contacted Buchanan’s Reese, told him she would coordinate the F&M tutors with the students, and offered her particular interest—working with children with learning disabilities. He embraced the idea.
“I can’t imagine how they’re doing,” she said. “I’m struggling with learning online and I don’t have any learning disabilities.”
Seller, a senior psychology and philosophy major who created the clubhouse in the first weeks of Bechtel’s class, worked with the three principals, and the teachers in each school, to develop the program. She conducted a town hall meeting with the kids to gauge their interest.
To launch the clubhouse, Seller provided parents the Zoom information and assured them the clubhouse was age-appropriate for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. She encouraged the schoolchildren to invite their siblings to join them.
The clubhouse is actually a series of clubhouses run by the individual F&M student tutors, who Seller coordinated with the schools’ pupils.
“For the clubhouse program, students can hop on and teach whatever they want to the kids,” she said, and cited examples. “I taught a class on mindfulness; another student went into the chemistry lab and did chem experiments; another student did geography.”
Seller said the student tutors chose activities that allowed them to work more closely with the kids, “especially this year because we weren’t teaching as much and they needed that personal time with them.”
The experience has Seller and Romero each considering fields in primary education.
“I met with some of the kids today and I just could not see myself doing anything different,” Romero said. She works with students who have learning differences to help them meet grade-level expectations. “I’ve been thinking about teaching and going into education just after college.”
Seller enjoyed the aspects of developing and implementing the clubhouse.
“My career goal is to run programs like these in schools, offer things like mindfulness that are not necessarily heavy in education, but offering an education aspect,” she said. “It was definitely nice to get that trial run of implementing a program and running it and seeing it succeed in its infancy.”
Romero and Seller look forward to continuing their programs in the spring semester. So do the students, teachers and administrators in the school district.
“Our students, families, and staff have absolutely enjoyed the partnership and we see both academic and social gains as a result of the hard work of the students at F&M,” Reese said. “The interaction, role models, and the chance to expand their knowledge has been the highlight of this pandemic.”