For almost 3,000 Montgomery County students, Saturday morning means school

December 21, 2013

Like most 13-year-olds, Heaven Atta would sleep in on Saturdays.

Now, she spends them at school working on her homework.

“It allows me time to read,” Heaven, an eighth-grader at Takoma Park Middle School, said as she finished a science assignment earlier this month during a session at Montgomery Blair High School.

Heaven skips the snooze button and attends Saturday School, a tutoring and mentoring program sponsored by The George B. Thomas Sr. Learning Academy Inc. The academy recently received $25,000 from The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund that supports D.C.-area nonprofit organizations with programs focused on increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

“I need help,” Heaven said of the extra tutoring she receives on Saturday mornings. “It doesn’t hurt because it’s not that long, and I can (sleep) when I go home.”

From late September to May, Montgomery County students in grades one through 12 can spend a portion of their Saturday mornings at one of the academy’s 12 sites. In its 28th year, the Saturday school program started 1986 in a daycare center with 21 students and 19 volunteer teachers. There are now 2,819 students, who get help from 452 volunteers and 157 paid certified teachers.

For the past month, Hope Wilson has been teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math at Saturday school and said the camaraderie she has with her students brings her back week after week.

“They want to learn and they are so receptive to the work,” said Wilson, teaching her students a practical lesson on how many combinations of soups, sandwiches, salads and drinks they could get.

Each Saturday School session starts with a motivational speech before students break into small grade-level groups for 75 minutes of academic support in reading and language arts and 75 minutes in math. High school students also have the option of working with tutors for the entire Saturday morning sessions.

Pedro Garay, 16, needed help balancing equations for his chemistry homework.

“It’s a good thing to come here on Saturday instead of sleeping in,” said Pedro, a junior at Montgomery Blair. “I want to get good grades.”

A preliminary analysis of last school year found that high school students who attend 50 percent or more of Saturday School had an average grade point average of 2.7, according to figures from the academy.

Sixty-three percent of students in the sixth through eighth grade got a B or better in English and 58 percent got a B or better in math. Seventy-four percent of fourth- and fifth-graders earned a B or higher in reading, and 77 percent earned a B or higher in math. And 56 percent of third-graders met their benchmark for reading and vocabulary and 74 percent of first- and second-graders met or exceeded their reading benchmark.

Rendee Burke of Silver Spring is a volunteer and a mother of a 9-year-old fourth-grader, Elle, who takes fifth-grade math at Saturday School.

“She’s learning ahead of her class,” said Burke. “She’s keeping up and staying on track and she’s not falling behind.”

Michael A. Thomas, executive director of Saturday School, said the program’s $1.4 million budget receives $805,000 from the Montgomery County government and in-kind support from Montgomery County Schools, which allows the academy to use the 12 middle and high schools at no cost on the weekend.

Students, depending on their family’s income, pay $30 or $50 a year for Saturday School and can pay for discounted peer tutoring sessions. Thomas said The Washington Post Charities grant will be used to hire more paid certified teachers or “lead tutors” for the program, which will allow an additional 140 students to enroll.

It’s the commitment of the students that is most rewarding for Thomas. He said there are many things students could be doing on their days off, but “they’re here getting the academic support they need to achieve in school Monday through Friday.”

“Sometimes hard work and effort means you go the extra mile in order to achieve what you need to achieve,” he said.

Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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