In the Spotlight: Top Honors

 

PHOTO – Kyle Pedrotty works through math fundamentals with middle-school students on a Saturday at JHS 118 in Manhattan.

 

 

It’s not every week you see a middle school cafeteria bustling on a Saturday, with 55 middle-school working diligently on math problems.

And enjoying it.

Such was my surprise when I visited Joan of Arc Middle School at 93rd and Amsterdam. I found a room of attentive adolescents paired with tutors of all ages and backgrounds, spread through the cafeteria
and fully focused. The types of problems and puzzles varied, but every student was a picture of calm.

This is the magic of Top Honors, a volunteer-driven organization that focuses on teaching underserved middle-school students the fundamentals of math. Using its own curriculum and a 1:1 or 2:1 student-tutor ratio, Top Honors provides free math improvement and positive role models to more than 100 students in New York City.

I was connected to the group through Trude Goodman, the dynamic Alumni Board Chair of City Year New York (Project Ubuntu’s partner in Week 7) who teaches full-time, holds a leadership position at school, sits on the board and directs education for Top Honors, and is director for a summer sailing in Massachusetts.

She emphasizes that Top Honors is not homework help or test preparation; rather, it is about teaching math fundamentals and catering to a student’s particular needs. “Unlike school, they can stay on one topic,” she explains.

Students qualify for the program if they are below-level math students, as determined by a diagnostic test.

Treasurer Ben Block says the goal of Top Honors is “to try to get (students) back up to grade level (by ensuring they get) the essentials to have a fighting chance.

“I’m sitting down with kids who are bright but they’ve just fallen behind a bit,” he says. “We’re getting the kids back up to the starting line so they can run a fair race.”

This is the program’s 11th year, with a highest-ever enrollment of 110 students and 70 trained tutors (aged 16 and up), including 40 returning from last year. Volunteers dedicate two hours on Tuesday or Saturday, when the program runs its full sessions.

Kyle Pedrotty, a veteran tutor with Top Honors, points to the students’ determination as crucial for the success of the program.

“It’s really the kids – they work hard,” he says. “Any kid that has the motivation to get up on a Saturday and come to school can succeed.”

Volunteer Executive Director Charlie Wolfson notes the commitment and consistent presence of tutors creates a valuable dynamic.

“A big part of it is being able to keep a small ratio – the tutors really connect with the students,” he says. “They build a relationship and expect to see each other every week.”

The secret of the smiles, then, is in the human interaction. “The tutors aren’t here just to tutor, but inevitably we are also mentors,” says Goodman. “The tutors are positive role models.”

As a result, students invest themselves, and Block says across the board they improve an average of 50% within the curriculum.

“They can see the results,” Goodman notes. “They can see it makes them more confident in math.”

This year Top Honors will receive external test scores that will allow the program to measure itself against further metrics. But after visiting schools in some of the most underserved communities of the United States and England, debating education policy and witnessing intervention attempts at various levels, I saw a powerful qualitative case in that cafeteria.

What works is meaningful interaction. Just as City Year corps members tutor and mentor students in New York (and 25 other cities across the US and world) through a year of full-time commitment, the Top Honors model capitalizes on the mutual connection forged between selfless tutors and sincere students.

Many underserved children want to develop the tools to succeed, and unfortunately we don’t always commit the resources to equip them.

Top Honors has five board members and two part-time staff – all seven hold full-time jobs outside the organization. But with the resources of human determination and compassion, they mobilize the relationships that can change the course of a child’s academic future.

To learn more about Top Honors and to inquire about volunteering, please visit www.tophonors.org.

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