ATCHISON — When the economy went south, the federal government cut grants for elementary school tutoring, leaving districts struggling to find a replacement for the program.
School officials in Atchison, familiar with the Benedictine College Hunger Coalition’s work with the needy, called Richard Coronado, the group’s faculty advisor, and asked for help.
His students readily agreed to fill in as tutors, signing up for 30-minute shifts throughout the week.
That was 1991.
Now, nearly 20 years later, the program is still flourishing.
But what does tutoring have to do with hunger?
“It is consistent with long-term alleviation of hunger,” explained Coronado. “We’re helping to keep kids in school and giving them the opportunity to learn the skills that will allow them to prosper and take care of themselves as they grow up.”
Each year, anywhere from 35 to 50 tutors sign up to help at Atchison Elementary School. This year there has been a surge of volunteerism, with more than 70 students giving at least 30 minutes once a week. Many volunteers work more — some putting in as many as six hours a week to help struggling elementary school students keep up with their reading and math lessons.
The fact that a record number of Benedictine College students signed up as tutors came at an opportune time for the elementary school, which has more than 900 students from pre-K to 5th grade and a 40 percent at-risk population.
“For a variety of reasons, we have a high population of at-risk students this year,” said Thomas Sack, principal of Atchison Elementary School. “We need as many Benedictine students as possible to come over here and address kids one-on-one.
“They really need that mentoring from an older student who says, ‘Hey, you’re important and I’m going to help you.’”
Dani Moody, a freshman in the pre- nursing program at Benedictine College, volunteers an hour on Mondays and Wednesdays in Amy Edwards’ preschool class.
“I only have one class on Mondays and Wednesdays,” said Moody, a member of St. Joseph in Shawnee. “So I do an hour instead of a half-hour. The Hunger Coalition is going to do another sign-up for next semester but, regardless, I’m going to come back. I love the kids.”
Edwards has worked with Benedictine students in her classroom for the past seven years. She said the extra help is important to her as well as the young students.
“We have four- and five-year-old students and with only two adults in the room. That can be a challenge,” said Edwards. “The extra set of hands in the classroom to help with anything from daily routines, to communicating with the students during lab times, to working with them on individual academic skills — it helps in all areas.”
She said the 20 students in her class look up to the Benedictine College volunteers as teachers and show them the same respect they do the other teachers in the room. She also noted that, for some of her students, getting the one-on- one attention makes a huge difference. She has seen the evidence: The extra attention has turned students around, even when they have a combination of behavior and academic problems.
“I have four or five Benedictine College students this year who are really reliable,” she said. “For instance, this year we had a field trip. One [Benedictine] student came in an hour early to go with us and another one surprised me and met us at [the location] to help out.”
The students are generally self-starters, according to Edwards, and don’t need a lot of direction from the teaching staff. They fill whatever need is necessary.
“They’re not coming because they have to,” said Edwards. “They’re coming because they want to.
“You can really tell that they’re here for the kids.”