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Alums help Boston students overcome disadvantages with Match Corps

Through a competitive fellowship, six Brown alums tutor urban students in Boston

By
Staff Writer
Friday, March 22, 2013

It seems like an odd jump from the flexible anti-structure that gives Brown its laid-back reputation to a school where kindergartners are called “scholars” and get demerits for slumping. But for the six Brown alums who work as tutors at Match Corps: Boston, it’s not a question of autonomy — it’s a question of equality.

Match Corps is a one-year fellowship program that brings top college graduates to tutor disadvantaged youth in the Boston area. At Match charter schools, tutors work with small groups, often one-on-one, and form close relationships with students and their families, according to the program’s website.

“Match’s mission is to help all students succeed in college and beyond by giving them the best education they can get,” said Match Corps COO Michael Larsson.

The program directs its efforts toward helping kids in city schools in an effort to overcome the stereotype that students in urban areas are unable to achieve their full potentials. If students in urban public schools are less equipped for success, it is because they are “historically extremely underserved in the education system,” said Reuben Henriques ’12, a current member of Match Corps.

 

Matching potential

Henriques said he is a firm believer that providing all students with “equal access to structures of power” through skills like reading and critical thinking is crucial not only for the individuals but also for society as a whole.

“A democracy needs people who can advocate for themselves and function in a healthy debate — not just rich, white students, but everyone,” he said.

Henriques is part of the Match Teacher Residency program, which trains and prepares tutors who plan on continuing to work in urban education after their year in Match Corps. In addition to their normal Monday-through-Thursday workloads, MTR members participate in teacher training on Fridays and Saturdays.

It’s a considerable time commitment, and Henriques said he struggles to “find a balance between my work and my life.” But he said the residency fellowship is one of the best ways to become a teacher. With a 6 percent acceptance rate, the program is more selective than the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Teach for America, according to its website.

“You get to cut to the core of an actual teacher role, so it’s not a lot of theoretical pedagogy,” Henriques said. Working in small groups gives him a unique insight into key issues that might be more difficult to address in the context of a larger classroom, he added.

Match values “honest and direct feedback” to instructors, Henriques said, adding that feedback he has received is “very specific about what I’m doing well and what I should do differently.” This criticism has proven a valuable opportunity for his growth along the “learning curve” of teaching and has helped him tackle issues like redirecting students who have veered off-course and helping them internalize what they’re taught, he said.

The most important lesson Henriques said he hopes to impart to his students is how to assume independence. “Students often struggle with taking ownership of themselves, and I’m only now getting some idea as to how important this is,” he said.

 

‘No excuses’

The central philosophy behind the Match schools encompasses the concept of “no excuses,” meaning that there is no acceptable reason — including income, special needs and family circumstances — that a student should not succeed, said Matthew Bubley ’09, director of the Match Corps program.

“The idea of ‘no excuses’ serves as our starting point,” Bubley said. “Everybody’s going to learn and everybody’s going to make progress, no matter what.”

The elementary school adds extra emphasis on teaching English as a second language.

While Match schools hold high expectations for their students, the program also expects a lot of its teachers.

“By sheer statistics, you’re bound to have kids in your class who will have a difficult home life, or who have trouble learning how to read and write, or who act out or are a victim of any number of circumstances,” Larsson said, “but none of this should excuse the student, the teachers or the leaders of the school from their dedication to that student’s success in life.”

That standard of collective excellence is evident in the school’s disciplinary policy.

Many high school students quickly learn which teachers are the most lenient on tardiness and which ones enforce a cellphone ban with an iron fist. A certain lack of uniformity in the rules could allow students to play the system through selectively good behavior. This is not the case under the Match schools’ demerit-based disciplinary model, which stresses consistency in all situations.

“Every student knows that no matter what class they’re in, certain things will get them a demerit,” Henriques said, including failing to complete assigned work, bringing food into class and not paying attention.

He added that this system aims to impart the “underlying norm in what professional behavior is” in the hopes that these habits will enhance students’ abilities to “get connections” and achieve success down the line.

“In the real world, you need to act in ways that convey respect and interest. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on sitting up straight, on being outwardly engaged and focused,” Henriques said.

Though the rigid rules are designed with the students’ best interests in mind, tutors must exercise a certain degree of patience to enforce them consistently, said Jacques Greenberg ’12, who teaches at the Match elementary school in Boston.

A little goes a long way

But aside from simply mastering the course material, strong teacher-student relationships are particularly important, Larsson said. “We truly believe that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said.

Bubley said that while he had “a lot of pie-in-the-sky, big-picture reasons” for joining Match Corps, he stayed because of the relationships that he formed with students and families. “That’s the small stuff, but it’s also the real stuff,” he said.

Chloe O’Connell ’12 also spoke fondly of the close ties she has developed with her students and their families. “You’re not really their teacher, and you’re not really their friend,” she said, “but you’re sort of this weird, amazing combination of both. That’s got to be the most rewarding thing.”

But the intensity of instructors’ personal investment can yield certain challenges.

“The job requires so much time and so much heart and energy for other people whose ultimate performance you can’t totally control,” Bubley said. Recalling his days as a Match Corps high school teacher several years ago, he said it was difficult not to hold himself entirely responsible when a student made poor choices outside of school or did not improve as much as he hoped.

O’Connell echoed the sense of deep responsibility she feels toward her students. She said it’s frustrating when she tries as much as possible and her students “still don’t get it.” Instructor support and feedback is particularly helpful during these trying moments, she added.

Ultimately, O’Connell said she knows how much she’s learned since the beginning of the year and how much this has allowed her to improve as a tutor.

“I’m finding more and more that every kid needs something different, and it’s all about figuring out what they need so you can give it to them,” she said, adding that various students respond better to more emotional, cognitive or disciplinary support. “Sometimes the best thing you can do for them is to pester them to do their homework,” she said.

 

‘The fight of our generation’

Greenberg said 30 percent of students in the program were “on track” at the beginning of the year to pass the state standardized test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Now, at just over halfway through the school year, 80 percent of students are projected to meet this goal. The implications are far-reaching — studies show that students’ third-grade performances on the MCAS correlates with their college graduation rates, Greenberg said.

Though one of the school curriculum’s primary goals is to maximize test performance, this investment in the standardized approach arguably comes at the expense of certain enrichment, Greenberg said.

“Students are taught to think inside a certain box,” he said. “The upside to this is that if you put any standardized test in front of them 10 years from now, or even today, they’ll be wildly successful at it — but at what cost?”

While he said this is ultimately up to teachers’ judgment, he added that this creative enrichment can be something of a luxury.

“In some charter schools, you play with play-dough all day and you do just fine because you’re reading and speaking English at home,” Greenberg said. “But if a kid is playing with play-dough at school and listening to Arabic at home, how well are they going to do on a multi-step word problem that’s written in English?”

Education inequity is “probably the biggest barrier to socioeconomic mobility and broader social equity in the country,” Bubley said. “Until schools give every kid in the country a fair shot, we will not be the meritocracy we purport ourselves to be. This is the rising tide that is the fight of our generation.”

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