The school lobby buzzes with anticipation as the clanking of four mothers’ car keys punctuates the clamor.
“OK, you’re taking these four today,” says Ora David, a middle-school teacher at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto.
She taps four eighth-grade students on their shoulders and pushes them out the door. She continues energetically assigning kids to cars until only six students remain, and she hurries those out to the parking lot and into her own minivan.
Five minutes later, David hops out and ushers the students into a public school in neighboring Mountain View, where they will spend the next hour tutoring elementary students.
Kindergarteners embrace their tutors Hayley and Max, who wiggle into the tiny wooden chairs and help them with a counting exercise. Meanwhile, fifth-grader Mateo eagerly follows his tutor, Emily, to the teacher’s lounge, where he reads about Galileo from his science textbook.
These scenes play out every Tuesday morning for Hausner’s 40 eighth-graders, who were trained by the Jewish Coalition for Literacy to be reading tutors. They spend one hour each week at Theuerkauf Elementary School, in the Mountain View Whisman School District. This is the second year the schools have paired up.
“Why not just work within our own school?” David asks. “Because it’s not just about us. It’s about establishing a connection with the Jewish community and the secular community.”
The tutoring is a continuation of a seventh-grade mitzvah project called Avodah La’Olam, Hebrew for “work of the world,” in which students spend the year researching charitable organizations, pooling their b’nai mitzvah funds and choosing one agency to receive its donation.
Hausner staff wanted a follow-up project with some kind of consistent, hands-on volunteer work. So in 2006, David established the literacy initiative. It was ideal, she said, because it allowed Hausner students to build relationships with other children, unlike, say, packaging canned goods at a food bank or cleaning up a park.
It also gave students a chance to take the lead. “This is not easy, and the kids are seeing that it can be very challenging,” David said. “It makes them question themselves: Am I helping? Am I doing it right? Do I mean anything to these students?”
Students ask these questions during the twice-monthly reflection and study sessions that accompany the tutoring. The eighth graders are divided into two groups of 20, and alternate visiting the elementary school each week. While one group tutors, the other stays behind to discuss the time spent at Theuerkauf the previous week, and to study from a supplementary curriculum designed by Jewish Funds for Justice.
Hausner student Lauren Sohn said she’s been surprised by how much energy she spends just keeping her students focused.
“It makes me wonder, did our teachers have this much trouble with us in first grade? Because, wow, it must take a lot of gusto to teach full-time, if that’s what we were doing,” she said. “It makes me grateful that our teachers did what they did.”
Tom Miyoko, the school’s literacy coach, said Theuerkauf benefits too — all the students who work one-on-one with Hausner tutors have moved up at least one reading level since the school year began, he said.
“Teachers who were once reluctant are now totally enthusiastic,” he said. “We have teachers who would like them to come more than once a week.”