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CALEDONIA — A tutoring program that pairs Gifford School’s oldest and youngest students is helping elementary kids build academic skills while building up confidence in middle school kids.

The tutoring program is part of a larger, district-wide program called Student Mentors that is headed at Gifford by school counselor Megan VanKoningsveld.

When VanKoningsveld first came to Gifford, 8332 Northwestern Ave., three years ago — the same year it transformed from an elementary school to a K-8 — she wanted to ensure the older and younger kids were interacting in positive ways.

“If the older kids are working with the younger kids, it builds a sense of community,” she said. “The older kids, they have the skills to help the younger kids, so not only are you building community but you’re building academic skills at the same time. It’s a benefit for both ends.”

This is the second year for the tutoring program, which sends 50 students in grades 6-8 to work with 4K through first-grade students for 10-15 minutes during home room each morning.

Kaelyn Ketchum, an eighth-grade tutor, said she started out helping her buddy get to know the alphabet, the names of the letters and the sounds they make.

“As I was helping him one day, he finally figured out the sound that the letter ‘A’ makes,” Ketchum said. “He had been working on it for a really long time and it was really cool to know that I did that, and that made me want to continue to help little kids do things like that.”

The tutors also help the younger kids with sight words and phonemic awareness — or awareness of the sounds that make up words.

Training

The tutors were trained by district reading specialist Emily Corr last November in simple activities meant to improve the younger students’ literacy skills.

The older students do not need to be academically advanced, VanKoningsveld said, they just need a desire to help younger kids. Some of the tutors have a difficult time with reading and math at their own grade level.

“But that’s okay because they understand what it’s like to struggle and they’re more empathetic to these kids who are struggling with the basics,” VanKoningsveld said.

She said it is apparent that both sets of students love participating in the program.

“The little kids look forward to the big kids coming to their classroom every day,” she said, and it is an ego boost for the older students.

In addition, the students also learn relationship skills and how to interact with people who are not in their age groups.

“Not everyone you work with is going to be your age,” VanKoningsveld said. “You have to change how you talk, you have to change how you act. And the older kids do a really good job of that when they’re around the younger kids.”

VanKoningsveld said the data from the prior year show that the program is working. This year, she said, the only incoming first graders — save one or two— who did not know their letters at the beginning of the school year were ones who did not attend Gifford last year. With one activity repeated over time, the students go from recognizing zero letters, to knowing all 26.

Through the tutoring process, some of the middle school students have decided they might want to go into teaching. Seventh-grade student Shannon Roberts, who has always enjoyed working with younger kids, said it was a good feeling to know that she taught a student how to write a letter of the alphabet.

“Some days it’s a little chaotic, but other days it’s fun and I just enjoy doing it,” Roberts said.

“If the older kids are working with the younger kids, it builds a sense of community. The older kids, they have the skills to help the younger kids, so not only are you building community but you’re building academic skills at the same time. It’s a benefit for both ends.” Megan VanKoningsveld, Gifford School counselor
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Caitlin Sievers covers cops, crime and the west-end communities. She's a lover of cats, dance and Harry Potter. Before moving to the Racine area she worked at small papers in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.

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