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Cops, top school officials put in time as tutors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 20, 2013 - Mary Houlihan spent 26 years crunching numbers at Anheuser-Busch before coming to the St. Louis Public Schools as deputy of superintendent of operations, but she’s never really been involved with teaching children.

So what is she doing meeting regularly with two sixth-grade girls at Carr Lane school, helping them raise their grade in math?

“They know they’re not getting what they need in class,” Houlihan said of the students she helps as part of a new program where people in the central office of the city schools are going out to classrooms to help raise student achievement.

“Teachers sometimes go too fast, and they’re behind. But you know how kids are sensitive about what their peers think about them.”

Houlihan, Superintendent Kelvin Adams and other members of the school system’s leadership team aren’t the only adults giving their time to help enrich students’ lives. Members of the city police academy’s recruit class also visit schools to read with students, part of the Books and Badges program started several years ago by Karen Kalish, whose business card reads “serial social entrepreneur.” She said the program helps both the kids and the cops-to-be.
“We need to spread the wealth,” she told the Beacon, “and kids need to see people in authority they can look up to.”

Central office tutors

Nicole Williams, a self-described math lover, spends most of her time as deputy superintendent for academics with the city schools, where she came last August after serving as superintendent of schools in Brooklyn, N.Y.

She sees the program where 63 staff members from the system’s central office fan out into several schools as an opportunity to give back to the students. Tutoring, Williams says, is a crucial piece of the puzzle to help students make progress in areas where the city schools too often have lagged in the past.

“This is in addition to, not in lieu of, the kind of services that students in our building are getting throughout the day,” said Williams, who is working with eighth graders at Pamoja Preparatory Academy.

“Building relationships with adults, understanding the need for building self-esteem and having an ongoing opportunity to really relate to adults who really care for them, these are key levers to academic achievement. These are the students who will be successful.”

Adams, who is typically low key about his tutoring stints with fourth graders at Henry elementary school – to the point that he was hesitant about even getting his photo taken – hasn’t been active in the classroom for a couple of decades.

But he wanted to put his teaching experience in New Orleans back to work, and he thinks the students appreciate the extra attention, even if they aren’t necessarily aware of where their tutors are located on the district’s organization chart.

“I don’t think they think about titles,” Adams said. “They just know this tall skinny guy comes twice a week and works with them on mathematics.

“They’re very respectful, very interested in learning, and I’m excited to do it.”

Williams says such enthusiasm can be catching, even for girls who aren’t always as deeply into numbers as she is.

“My passion is mathematics,” she said. “Slope and Y intercept, how we get to those mathematical notations — the language of math to me is exciting. And when you are passionate about a subject, you convey that passion to students, and it ignites a fire in them.

“We’re not all born with the proverbial math gene, if you will. We have to think about how to debunk that myth that only certain segments of the population can do math well.”

And for Houlihan, whose day job is making sure the operations side of the school system runs smoothly, spending time with students provides a valuable point of view she might not have otherwise.

“It’s been good for me,” she said. “It’s giving me a perspective that teachers have, what a challenge it is for teachers. Also, the kids talk to me about what is going on in the school. I can see what works and what doesn’t work in the buildings, so it’s giving me more of a real-world perspective in what’s happening, and it enriches what I am able to offer on the operations side.

“Some days they’re really into it, other days they don’t want to come to tutoring and they feel a little bit singled out. They’re in sixth grade. They feel peer pressure. I take them out of gym class, so they are missing out on something they consider fun. But they want to be personally related to someone invested on an individual level, and they want to talk about what they are dealing with.”

Reading recruits

The police recruits who are involved in the Books & Badges program at Woerner, Sherman and Mullanphy schools share the same new perspective, though they might come at it from a different angle.

Kalish said the program grew out of a police ride-along program she took part in several years ago. She said she chose to be a passenger in a police car on the city’s north side from 7 to midnight on a Saturday night, and she was so bored she got to thinking about getting police personnel more directly involved in the community in a different way.

She knew that early intervention with students was a key — “If they’re not reading by the end of third grade, you’re not going to get them” — but she was told that uniformed officers were too valuable on the streets to take time out to help with student literacy.

Recruits, she found out, were a different story.

They aren’t all eager to take part, Kalish said, at least at first, but when they hear the chief tell them that this activity is just another kind of police work, they usually come around.

“The kids adore it,” she said. “The teachers adore it. The only people who don’t like it are a few of the recruits. They think, I signed up to shoot guns and arrest people. What am I doing with a third grader?”

What Courtney Nash was doing the other day at Woerner school was sitting in the library with Amirah Chloe Benne, a fourth grader reading a book about the science of cooking. She said she likes to work in the kitchen herself; her special dish is mostaccioli.

Nash said Amirah was already a good reader to start with, but he and his fellow recruits are there to help some of the students over the rough spots where they might be stumbling.

“It really helps us because it makes us deal with people on a human level,” Nash said. “It’s more of a helping role.

“Police work is more than just arresting people. If you’re doing your job properly, you’re preventing things. These kids will come out of it knowing police officers on a more personal level.”

Kalish said the program has spread to include workers at Sigma Aldrich chemical company. And one of the big parts of Books & Badges for the kids who work with police recruits is a visit at the end of the year to the Police Academy, so students can see where their tutors go to school.

How well has the program worked? Individual results vary, of course, but Kalish likes to talk about the success stories like a fourth grader from Hodgen school a few years ago. He wasn’t reading well, and his behavior at home wasn’t the best. Then he started working with a police recruit named Kevin.

“In three months,” Kalish said, “there was a 180-degree turnaround. His mom came to school one morning when the recruit was there and said, ‘I have to meet Kevin from heaven.’”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.