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James Gallagher for TRW

Putting some positivity back into middle school

Think back to middle school. We’ve made it a long way from those three years of constant confusion, puberty and intense social pressure, but there are still kids who have to struggle through it. To alleviate some of that trademark middle school pain, UMBC students befriend and tutor students at Arbutus Middle School.

The Arbutus Achievers program, coordinated through the Shriver Center, aims to make middle school a better experience for local kids. Its tutors, each paired with a middle school student, provide everything from homework help to relationship advice. Through this holistic approach, the program fosters learning and academic achievement.

“It’s not just about their letter grades,” said sophomore computer science major Maxwell Poole, “but also making sure that their middle school experience, which is so tumultuous, can be more easy for them.” Poole serves as the volunteer coordinator of the Arbutus Achievers program.

The program aims to improve students’ grades, but also to create a positive environment for learning, with emphasis on “emotional satisfaction, getting their homework done on time, getting organized,” said Poole. “We’ve seen significant improvements in those areas.”

These improvements have come about through a two-pronged approach. “The first is our tutoring,” said Poole, “We run tutoring sessions for students who are at risk of doing poorly in their classes.”  These sessions focus on specific learning objectives for the students’ classes.

“The other part is our life leadership skills we teach. So every Thursday, we either have our tutors or an outside group come and teach the kids about some sort of important life skill,” said Poole. “Those are kind of more fun activities for the students, where they get to get up and do a lot of stuff, interact with the UMBC community as well.”

This interaction with the university is a key element to the program, by building enthusiasm for learning and for a college education. “Our programs are more about getting them prepared for college, illuminating and showing them what sort of activities and jobs and careers are available through a college degree,” Poole said.

To that end, various UMBC groups have reached out to participate in the Arbutus Achievers program to provide those learning opportunities. According to Poole, in the last semester, groups as diverse as ultimate frisbee, robotics and musical theater have spoken at Arbutus Middle.

The robotics team was especially a highlight for students. “They brought all these robots they built for their competition,” said Poole. “These robots were remote controlled, they picked up objects … the kids were ecstatic about that. They loved playing with all the little robots.”

This fun day with robots was also a confidence-builder. “College is kind of a scary concept for them,” said Poole, “But it showed them that there’s still fun activities, exciting activities, that are educational at college.”

The Arbutus Achievers program takes a more forward-looking approach than many tutoring organizations. It’s not just about getting the math homework turned in on time. It’s about getting at-risk students on the right track for college, and building enthusiasm about learning at a time in their educational careers where that enthusiasm is so often lost.