Tutoring program helps Arlington students make the grade

June 1, 2011

Binita Pant moved to Arlington County from Nepal when she was in the fifth grade. She didn’t understand the American grading system and would toss her report card aside.

That all changed when she joined the Affordable Housing Corporation’s Project Discovery program at her housing complex, the Gates of Ballston. Pant, 18, learned English and discovered her love of biology. She now tutors students learning English and regularly helps out at the same community center.

AHC, an nonprofit organization that develops homes for low- and moderate-income families, recently held a banquet to honor Pant and 10 graduating seniors who participated in Project Discovery. The program’s goal is to help students who live in AHC housing complexes excel in school.

Without the program, “I would be in a wrong direction because I would not have an interest in my academics as I do now,” said Pant, who’s graduating from Washington-Lee High School. Before she joined the program, Pant would go home after school and watch television. Now she enjoys community service and is contemplating her future studies at either Northern Virginia Community College or Mary Baldwin College in Staunton.

The state-funded Project Discovery provides a resident services coordinator at each community center. Volunteer tutors act as mentors, helping kids with their homework or prepping for exams. The program takes the students on college tours and events for those who do well on report cards and hosts after-school and weekend activities.

“At first, I thought I was interested in being a medical student. They helped me volunteer at a hospital,” said Pant, who said the resident services coordinator helped her find an after-school job and a summer internship.

Almost 200 students participate in after-school programs in six AHC community centers throughout Arlington County. Almost 80 percent of the students do not speak English at home, and 20 percent were born in a foreign country. About 94 percent of the students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch, according to AHC data.

“The beauty of the program is that it is community based. It is right where the family lives,” said Jennifer Endo, director of AHC resident services. The programs “become part of that community and are seen as a real resource for parents.”

Henry Morales, 18, a graduating senior from Wakefield High School, enrolled in a learning program through his AHC housing complex in the fourth grade.

“My parents wanted me to join, so I could have more help than they could give me,” Morales said. “They didn’t have time because they had to work.”

He regularly received homework help throughout the week and also grew to have an appreciation for community service. Morales plans to go to community college and then transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University to pursue a career in art education. He wants to be a teacher.

“These tutors come and take time out of their daily life and help others. I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I do that myself?’ ” he said. “It was a huge, I would say, blessing that they helped me through these years.”

The resident services coordinators also work with the minority achievement coordinators in schools. The school coordinator lets AHC people know about SAT classes, college information nights and special event dates, for example.

These students are often children of immigrants and the first to go to college, and their parents have more than one job, said James Sample, Washington-Lee High School’s minority achievement coordinator. They need extra support to help fill out college applications or select class schedules. Having eyes at home and in school is a key connection, he said.

“The stronger that connection, it is going to promote academic achievement,” he said. “Kids are not falling through the cracks.”

Sample visited the Gates of Ballston Community Center to observe workshops on goal setting and college prep, said Emily Ward, the resident services coordinator.

“I give most of the credit of me getting into college to Miss Emily,” said Arati Sharma, a Washington-Lee graduating senior.

After Sharma would write her college entrance essays, Ward would proofread them, sometimes at very late hours, to meet the deadline, Sharma said.

Sharma will be attending Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in the fall. She is interested in economics, computer science and philosophy.

“Once you come here more often, they become family,” said Sharma, who moved to Gates of Ballston from Nepal two years ago. “If they can’t get direct help, they will point me in the direction of someone who can help.”

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