Campus & Community

Harvard students step up to the plate

4 min read

Twice a week since March, a group of Harvard College students has been meeting at Johnston Gate every Monday and Thursday to take the Red Line train from Harvard Square to Fields Corner in Dorchester, and then walk to the John Marshall Elementary School where they are part of the Marshall After-School (MAS) pilot program.

Sarah Maxwell, a Harvard freshman, is the founder and co-director of MAS. She started volunteering at the Marshall School as a seventh-grader when she was just 13. Six years later, as a member of the Harvard class of 2011, Maxwell was still looking for opportunities to help local children. That brought her to the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) where she worked with Maria Dominguez, deputy director of PBHA, to establish an after-school program at the Marshall School.

Maxwell wasn’t alone in her efforts at Marshall. Harvard University, through Step UP, a five-university partnership delivering coordinated services to improve student performance in select Boston schools, was providing after-school support through the Harvard Achievement Support Initiative (HASI). HASI’s Learning Support Program (LSP) uses motivating hands-on materials tied to Massachusetts’ learning standards in the after-school programs. It also provides ongoing professional development training and on-site coaching for all after-school staff.

By January 2008, representatives from the Marshall School and student volunteers from PBHA and HASI were preparing to deliver comprehensive after-school support.

Maxwell even borrowed the Step UP slogan to recruit Harvard student mentors to volunteer at the school. “We had a great idea about the slogan ‘Step UP.’ I borrowed my neighbor’s stool that she uses to get into her bunk bed, and [co-director] ‘Eben’ [Ebenezer] Asare ’11 said to people walking past our booth, ‘Step up and sign up to make a difference in kids’ lives.’ And they did. People laughed and then they signed up, almost 50 in all.”

In March, student involvement in the after-school program began in earnest, and on Mondays and Thursdays groups of between five and eight students met in the Yard to travel the 11 subway stops to the school.

The typical day began at 2:30 p.m. in the gym, with more than 20 students getting out some of their restless energy before moving into the classroom for two hours of academic support.

Students then sat around tables in groups of five and six with their Harvard student tutors to take part in homework support, academic tutoring, mentoring, and sometimes math and logic games.

In the meantime, Marshall Elementary’s after-school coach, Harvard’s Joan Matsalia, visited the program once a week and provided ongoing academic coaching to after-school staff, including PBHA students.

“Our partnership with the Marshall School has been a tremendous success,” says Matsalia, assistant director of HASI. “It serves as an example of what can happen when universities and schools collaborate.”

Cyndi Weekes-Christopher, the manager of extended learning services at the Marshall School and the liaison between Harvard tutors and Marshall teachers, recalled, “Teachers said their students were doing poorly in class; they weren’t meeting benchmarks. They asked, what can this service do for them?”

The program has already seen remarkable results. According to Sudecia Brown, a fourth-grade teacher at the Marshall School, her students “have gained confidence in math, and they come to class eager to show me new strategies they’ve learned in tutoring.” Brown has placed nine of her students in the after-school program, and intends to place a few more next year.

“The volunteers talk to the students in a respectful manner, which makes them feel very smart,” said Brown. “They told them they were stars. … The students responded to the positive feedback.”

The PBHA students intend to return in the fall to build on their initial success, and Harvard’s involvement in after-school efforts through Step UP will continue in the coming year.

“To see the kids so happy and excited, and the parents say they feel like we’re making a difference; that is really wonderful,” said Maxwell. And she has big plans for next year. “We have room for improvement, we want to add another day, and do more mentoring, but we are happy with the progress we’ve made so far.”

Launched in 2006, Step UP is a partnership that draws from the resources of five Boston-area universities: Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University, Boston College, and Tufts. The universities partner with 10 Boston public schools to provide a variety of services.

Harvard’s Step UP program delivers support to these schools in the following areas: professional development for teachers; curriculum and instructional support during and after school; school readiness and student support; family engagement and out-of-school time (providing an extended day, full-service model of mentoring, tutoring, and community resources, as well as summer programs and job opportunities); student wellness — nutrition, dental, and general health screenings, and a food service program; and assessment and evaluation.