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“Leaders” earn praise, not funding

A fledgling organization started only a year ago, mentoring organization Leaders in Learning is working to broaden its wings.

Leaders in Learning, a community service initiative, hires Carnegie Mellon students to tutor underprivileged grade-schoolers in the Hill District. The program is intended to foster mentorship, community pride, and literacy improvement. It aims to go beyond the students’ academic well-being and broaden their worlds while instilling in them the values and confidence needed to succeed.

Meant to fill a tutoring void created last year by the closing of a long-standing Hill District program, Leaders in Learning hired 20 students this year as mentors and tutors to work individually with children in grades three to five. In special cases, Leaders in Learning also takes the children’s younger siblings to ensure that all those interested can participate.

The tutors are compensated and are able to use the job as work-study hours with wages comparable to those of on-campus job.

The tutors work in conjunction with Miller Academy, one of three elementary schools remaining in the Hill District after the citywide budget cuts last year.

Miller Academy has had to confront the challenges brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act. Passed in 2002 by the Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act has instituted additional statewide tests to ensure that students are not promoted to the next grade without the correct skills. Additionally, the act gives the students a chance to attend a better school if they are not promoted as of the act’s standards.

As a result, these measures have placed an enormous amount of pressure on the Miller School’s teachers and administration to ensure that the students learn all they need to be promoted to the next grade. Especially given the student population of underprivileged children with very low confidence levels, this proved to be a big task for the school to undertake; currently, only 6 percent of this district’s children attend college.

Christa Romanosky, a senior creative writing major, recognized the problems at the end of last school year. By the beginning of this year’s fall semester, Romanosky had put the program into action.

“To ensure that they reach the student population, the school has had no choice but to teach with a ‘drill and kill’ method,” Romanosky said. “Leaders in Learning enhances the students’ learning through one-on-one help in a safe and enjoyable setting.”

The drill and kill method can best be described as teaching the students the subjects using mass methods, without taking into account each individual student.
However, Romanosky worries that the program will not receive enough funding to keep it running on a year-to-year basis.

This year, Leaders in Learning was funded with the help of Pittsburgh grants and Heinz endowments. Romanosky plans to branch out to other funding options in future years.

“I would like to see more enthusiasm and also continued support from the campus community,” said Marian Mereba, program tutor and sophomore creative writing major. “There is something really special about this program that ought to be acknowledged.”

The program has been recognized as a university-sanctioned organization and is allowed to use campus facilities for its activities, refuting the common misconception that Carnegie Mellon does not support its outreach and service activities as well as it does with technology initiatives. This fiscal year, the university’s Joint Funding Committee (JFC) allocated a total of $981,482 to clubs and organizations. Of that, $18,882, or only 1.9 percent of total funds, was allocated to science and technology clubs, such as the Robotics Club.

“I think many people feel like science clubs are favored more because of their requested budgets,” said Aaron Johnson, a senior electrical and computer engineering major and Robotics Club vice president. “Clubs like ours just need more money for equipment and club materials. An oscilloscope alone costs about $2800.”

The proportion of requested funds has resulted in a JFC pyramid of support, beginning with Activities Board committees and followed by club sports, larger organizations such as the Asian Student Association, and the Robotics Club. The pyramid is not based on the clubs’ relative importance, but out of the organizations’ monetary needs.

The Robotics Club has grown from 30 to 140 people in only four years, with a 70 percent increase in membership last year alone. While service clubs such as Leaders in Learning always manage to generate enough tutors and support staff, there is not the aspect of power by numbers.

Leaders in Learning has not yet applied to the JFC to be eligible for funding.

“I would be happy to speak with the group about alternative funding sources that may be available to them until they apply for recognition and funding eligibility,” said John Hannon, interim director of Student Activities.

However, Leaders in Learning’s first priority is finding more interested students.

“We think we have the funding aspect under control,” Romanosky said. “Our focus right now is to generate student interest and enthusiasm.”

Leaders in Learning offers 20 students each the opportunity to tutor and mentor one child from the Miller Academy. Additional students are always needed to organize the program and help out with the younger children.

The tutors meet with the children multiple times a week and engage in workshops such as jazz, Spanish culture, dance, and economics organized by Carnegie Mellon students, faculty, and staff.

“The kids seem to love these workshops because they expose the tutorees to subjects that they might be unfamiliar with in a very fun way,” Mereba said. “I just really like seeing them participate and get excited about the activities.”

The program’s on-campus location exposes the students to a rigorous academic atmosphere, some for the first time. Prior to entering the program, many of the students had never thought of attending college.

Each child in the program keeps a journal, which allows staff to track their progress both academically and emotionally.

“When we first met one child, he wrote that he dreamed to be a football player,” Romanosky said. “As time went on, he wanted to go to college and play football there. Now, he said he wants to work hard in school so he can play football at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s these little things that make the organization so rewarding.”

Most of the children come from families that cannot afford to send them to college. Leaders in Learning aims to show children that attending and paying for collegeare viable options.

A college graduate makes, on average, at least $12,000 more per year than a high school graduate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In everything we do with the students, we try to convey the message that they cannot fail,” Romanosky said. “For them, college seems like an impossibility, but we want them to know that not only college, but success in life, is achievable.”

Leaders in Learning is hoping to involve more students, faculty, and staff as participants in the program.

“Our program is constantly on the lookout for ways we can expose our kids to new professional paths,” said Eleanor Zimmermann, a fifth-year policy and management senior and Leaders and Learning tutor. “We’d love to have more CMU departments take our kids on a tour and explain what it is that they do.”

For more information, contact Christa Romanosky at (cromanos@andrew.cmu.edu).