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A Tutor Tries to Make a Difference

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I was nervous the first time I met Jossue.

I didn’t know what to expect as we plopped down on the floor in a corner of his school library--I in my dress slacks and tie, he in his blue school uniform.

Jossue (pronounced Ho-SWAY) picked a simple book with big pictures and began to read, “The cat sat on the castle.”

That’s when his problem spilled out.

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“Ca . . . ca . . . cas,” he sputtered.

He scanned the page for a clue to “castle"--the picture showed a cat sitting atop a bunch of blocks.

Finally, he turned to me and asked in a sheepish voice: “The cat sat on the blocks?”

Jossue was flunking second grade. He was a year behind his classmates at Rosemont Avenue Elementary School in Echo Park. Unless he made significant progress, he would have to repeat the grade.

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I was part of the solution. I was Jossue’s reading tutor.

Every Monday for one hour, we would practice phonics, play games, sing rhymes, flip through flash cards--anything I could dream up to help propel him to the third grade.

As an education reporter, I knew that tutoring had been heralded as a promising way to attack illiteracy. But I also knew a sober flip side: Friends had volunteered with good intentions, only to quit after the initial excitement had faded. Would I stick it out?

I put my concerns on hold and plunged ahead. Here was a chance to give a 7-year-old boy the boost he so badly needed. And here was a chance to try firsthand what I had only reported from a distance.

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Jossue’s reading problems were overwhelming. He struggled to connect sounds with letters and lacked basic grammar skills for deciphering English, his second language after Spanish.

He would read “welt” instead of “wait,” “ordy” instead of “order.” He repeatedly said “da” instead of “the.” He was lost when it came to the double “ee” sound, as in “queen.”

At one point I asked him if he knew what a syllable was. He answered with a question: “A, E, I, O, U?”

Jossue’s teacher, Arleen Irvin, said he had not fully grasped Spanish before suddenly being thrown into English instruction, putting him at a disadvantage. He had gotten caught in the switches of Proposition 227, the statewide measure that essentially ended bilingual education two years ago, she believed.

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I wasn’t so sure. I had seen kids whose first language was Spanish excel in English. Why didn’t he?

Whatever the reasons, Jossue was not behind in school for lack of effort. He turned in completed homework every day--his mother would sit with him at the dining room table and make him correct his mistakes. And he maintained near-perfect attendance.

I liked Jossue’s eagerness. I liked his toothy smile, his sweet brown eyes. He wore a gold-plated cross around his neck and attended church every weekend with his mother, father and 5-year-old sister. “On Sundays, we go to hear God talk,” he told me.

The fact that I liked Jossue only increased my anxiety over my ability to help him. If his teacher couldn’t apply the right remedy in nine months, what made me think I could do it in one hour a week?

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My doubt found its way into a weekly diary I started to chronicle our tutoring experience.

Feb. 28

I know that Jossue likes soccer, so I ask the librarian for books about the sport. But as soon as Jossue starts reading, it’s clear I’ve made an error.

The books are way too hard. The pages are covered with big words. I feel a little defeated. The clock is running. As we are reading, I ask myself, “Do I know what the hell I’m doing?”

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Keeping Expectations for Progress Realistic

In the training session I attended for new tutors, the instructor issued a blunt warning: Don’t think you’re going to change these kids overnight.

These students spoke limited English. Some came from broken homes. Many parents were illiterate. Or working long hours.

“Don’t expect their test scores to go up in only a few weeks,” the trainer told a dozen of us in the library of a Westside elementary school in early February. “It’s a long haul.”

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I was one of 700 tutors recruited by a group called the Wonder of Reading. But 700 volunteers seemed like a tiny number in a school district filled with kids like Jossue. He was one of nearly 10,000 second-graders in L.A. Unified facing the prospect of repeating a grade because they couldn’t read.

As tutors, our primary objective was to instill a love of reading in our students, to get them excited about books. Along the way, we were supposed to serve as friends and mentors.

But how was I going to instill a love of reading in a kid who hated to read?

I followed my intuition. If I couldn’t teach Jossue to love books, at least I could supplement the skills he was learning in school. We would review his vocabulary words each week, breaking down the letters and sounds, and then read the accompanying stories.

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I gave him a reporter’s notebook to jot down the vocabulary words. His eyes lighted up when I pulled the thin spiral-bound pad out of my bag and told him that I used the same type of notebook in my job. When we returned to class that day, he waved it proudly in front of his classmates, who huddled around him to get a look. I felt great.

March 22

Jossue seems to be reading smoother, faster. Is it my imagination? Do I just want him to be reading better to justify what I’m doing, to serve my own ego?

Outsider’s Attention Alone Makes Impact

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Arleen believed that any outside effort would help Jossue. Maybe my vocabulary would rub off on him. Or my grammar. Or the way I pronounced words.

The mere fact that someone was paying attention meant the world to him, Arleen told me. No one else in Room 1 had a tutor. Jossue would perk up every time I walked through the door and shoo the other kids away if they tried to get my attention.

Yet our tutoring sessions slowed to a crawl as Jossue made the same mistakes week after week. I would review the “oo” sound in “wood” and “hood,” thinking we had nailed that down. Then he would draw a blank on it the next time we met.

Or he would read “walk” and “talk” from his vocabulary list but then get stumped by “chalk.”

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As the mistakes mounted, so did Jossue’s frustration. He would shrug his shoulders, roll his eyes and push away whatever we were reading. Or he would lay his head down and refuse to continue.

Were we getting anywhere? Was I wasting my time?

I found myself trying to devise creative ways to make learning fun for both of us. I wanted him to look forward to our meetings, which often seemed more like torture than anything else.

To my surprise, I found myself starting to care about the boy, not just the pupil.

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April 3

I told Jossue I would bring a game, but I forgot. It was the first thing he asked about when we saw each other today. It totally slipped my mind.

I didn’t want him to know that I had forgotten. So I lied. I told him I had to find a few missing pieces. I felt terrible about forgetting and about telling the fib.

One week later, I made amends.

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April 10

I brought the game. Boggle. It was the first thing I mentioned when I walked into Jossue’s classroom to pick him up. ‘I brought the game,’ I told him.

He smiled wide.

I loved seeing that smile.

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As it turned out, Jossue wasn’t crazy about Boggle, which was like a crossword puzzle using dice. Neither was I. It was tedious trying to find all those words on the dice. We chucked it.

The following week, I hit on an idea that worked wonders.

The librarian happened to be gone this time. We had the place to ourselves. So I turned to Jossue on the library’s carpeted steps and said we were going to practice our vocabulary words by . . . singing them.

Jossue looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe he thought it was a stupid idea. Maybe he was used to being shushed for talking too loud amid the stacks.

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But I figured, why not?

I wanted to work on pronouncing the ends of words, something I noticed Jossue often failed to do.

So I pulled out that week’s vocabulary list, shot a quick glance around the room, then let out a great, tone-deaf holler.

“CRAWLLLLL . . . TALLLLL.”

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Jossue eyed me with suspicion. He was puzzled. Slowly, he too looked left and right. Then to my delight, he chimed in, throwing his hands out from his sides as if he were on stage belting out a Broadway show tune.

“CRAWLLLLL . . . TALLLLL.”

He giggled. I chuckled. Breaking the rules was fun.

A Crucial Decision About Promotion

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The end of Jossue’s school year was approaching, and so was the decision about whether to advance him to third grade. His last day would be April 27, because Rosemont is a year-round campus.

Jossue had made progress over the year, reaching what Arleen termed a “late first-grade level” in reading and writing. She had tutored Jossue after school with her other struggling students, and he attended an “intervention” class during vacation as well as a Saturday reading program. He was one of thousands of second-graders in Los Angeles in danger of flunking as the result of a crackdown on social promotion, the practice of advancing students regardless of their grades.

But the progress wasn’t enough. Arleen was going to recommend that Jossue be held back next year. She filled out the paperwork, which Jossue’s mother reluctantly signed.

“For him to go on to third grade is like leaving him on a busy street alone,” Arleen said.

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Still, Jossue would have one last chance to prove himself. He was going to attend another intervention class in May. If he improved, he would be allowed to move ahead with his classmates. The final decision would be made by the intervention teacher sometime in June.

I was developing my own plan to continue tutoring Jossue once school ended. I proposed working with him at the park or the city library near his house.

The following Monday, I showed up at Jossue’s house wearing tennis shoes. We walked half a mile to Echo Park, settled at a picnic table next to a baseball field and opened “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” a simple kindergarten story I had brought to rev him up.

But Jossue was restless, even defiant. He laid his head on the table and closed his eyes after 10 minutes of reading.

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I resented his behavior. Here I was giving up nearly two hours of my busy day for a kid who wasn’t interested. I told him we had to read if we were going to meet in the park.

Then I remembered that it was summer break and he was 7. So I struck a deal on the walk home. I would teach Jossue to read if he taught me how to play soccer. Sports. That got him psyched.

May 5

We are about to cross a major intersection with cars whizzing by. So I instinctively take Jossue’s hand. I think to myself how strange it is that I am holding this little boy’s hand. The only hands I am used to holding are those of my son.

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I’m a little uncomfortable with it. I’m just supposed to be his tutor, right?

I received a call from Wonder of Reading wanting to know if I was going to sign up for another year. I liked working with Jossue, but I thought to myself, “C’mon, gimme a break. How can I commit for year two when I’m trying to get through year one?”

I told the caller I would have to reevaluate after my one-year anniversary in February. Privately, I told myself I would probably stick with Jossue.

My fellow tutors were also pondering their futures.

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A few of them were recommitting, and two even said they planned to work with their kids through the end of elementary school. Another had dropped out. She was tired of coaxing a little boy who didn’t care.

‘Why My Son? Why My Child?’

Jossue lived on the top floor of a Victorian duplex, half a mile from downtown. A steep flight of stairs led directly to the cramped, three-bedroom unit he shared with his mother, father, grandmother and younger sister.

Jossue’s bedroom was tiny. The door bumped against a bunk bed behind it.

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I did not see any books in the house, but the living room did have a nice television with video games for the kids.

Jossue’s father, a machine operator at a box company in Alhambra, spoke only Spanish. His education had stopped at the sixth grade in Mexico.

His mother, who had graduated from high school in Mexico, managed an auto shop in East Los Angeles. She spoke English quite well, having learned it at adult school.

She called me Mr. Duke, and seemed very pleased that I had taken an interest in Jossue.

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One afternoon, when Jossue was sick, I sat down with her at the family’s dining room table. She told me she was embarrassed initially at the thought of her boy repeating second grade when other kids, including her niece, were moving ahead to third. She had asked herself: “Why my son? Why my child?”

She also told me that Jossue was born seven weeks early, which she believed played a role in his development. As she told me this, tears welled up in her eyes. “I see my son is not to the level of the rest of the kids in his class,” she said.

I sipped the cold soda she had poured for me and stared out the window at the downtown skyline. I wondered whether Jossue would ever catch up.

Apparently, his intervention teacher was more optimistic. After working with Jossue during May, Elvira Vega was prepared to send him to third grade. She viewed him as an average student with issues that transcended academics.

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“His problem is behavior,” she said. “He plays and talks a lot during lessons. I don’t think that by retaining him, he’s going to make any improvements. With a little more effort, he should be fine.”

Vega wasn’t the only one who thought Jossue should advance. Another intervention teacher who had taught him earlier in the year also believed he should continue to third grade. I thought they were both wrong.

Mid-June arrived. Three weeks remained before the start of school, and still there was no decision.

Jossue’s mother was confused. She wanted to know why he was going to be held back if his teachers said he was making progress. She asked for a meeting at school.

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Six teachers who had worked with Jossue and the Rosemont principal met with his parents. Arleen explained that Jossue had made progress. But she felt he wasn’t ready for third grade because he still needed to establish a foundation in phonics, comprehension and other critical skills.

I asked Jossue later how he’d feel about repeating the year. He dropped his chin on a basketball we had been shooting.

“Bad,” he said softly. “I don’t want to go to second grade again.”

On Wednesday, Jossue will start second grade again. He will return to Room 1, Arleen’s class.

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After school, the two of us will shoot baskets on the playground, grab a drink of water at the fountain, then plop down on the floor in the corner of the library. Our work has just begun.


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