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Teaching the Kids

A program pairs students with volunteer tutors.

by Beverly Gray

January 3, 2002 | 7:00 pm

There's a 7-year-old girl who attends second grade at a local Jewish day school. She's intelligent, but in a classroom setting, she finds it hard to focus: if a fire engine roars down the street, there goes the lesson.

Her teacher, busy with a room full of students, is hard-pressed to find extra time for her. But Lomed L.A., a new program sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), has matched the girl with a volunteer tutor devoted to meeting her needs. This fledgling tutorial program, which began in October in cityside schools, will expand to the Valley this month, beginning at Adat Ari El Day School

Lomed L.A. (the Hebrew word means "teaching and learning") was launched through the BJE's department of psychological services and special education, in partnership with the Jewish Vocational Service.

A start-up grant from the Jewish Community Foundation has enabled program director Elizabeth K. Glass and supervisor Kenneth Schaefler to serve day school children who need help beyond what their teachers can provide.

Currently there are 40 volunteer tutors who spend an hour a week at one of five Jewish elementary schools. These schools, which cross the denominational spectrum, include the Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, Maimonides Academy, Emanuel Academy of Beverly Hills and Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School. With the Adat Ari El school up and running, Lomed L.A. will expand into other Valley schools, as soon as a sufficient corps of tutors can be recruited and trained.

The new program must vie for attention with KOREH L.A., which is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Angeles. When KOREH L.A. was founded in 1999, it was widely touted as the Jewish community's way of helping solve the crisis of literacy among young children. It quickly attracted 1,100 volunteers, who spend time each week helping children in the Los Angeles Unified School District how to develop a love for reading.

KOREH L.A. is a legitimate source of pride for civic-minded Jews. But while children in the Los Angeles School District receive a helping hand, the fact remains that some students in Jewish day schools have been quietly suffering from the lack of one-on-one attention.

The BJE's Schaefler pointed out that in trying to attract volunteers, Lomed L.A. has had to combat three widespread myths: that Jewish day schools contain very few kids with learning difficulties, that day school teachers can handle such difficulties that do arise and that Jewish parents have plenty of money to hire private tutors for their offspring.

The children served by Lomed L.A. do not all come from families facing financial hard times. But they all have been chosen to receive tutorial help because they have special needs, whether academic or emotional.

"There are a lot of kids who fall through the cracks, who need light catch-up work, extra practice," Schaefler said.

Emanuel Academy's Lomed L.A. volunteers range from high school seniors to senior citizens. Ashley Berger helped recruit a group of Shalhevet High School classmates who are, as she put it, "passionate about working with young kids."

Ashley tutors a fourth grader who speaks only Hebrew, while a friend has been assigned a young boy who speaks nothing but German. Both work from materials assigned by the children's classroom teachers, and they are supervised at every session by Lomed L.A.'s Liz Glass, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology.

Another Emanuel tutor is Elizabeth Yost, a veteran television executive and mother of a young son. Looking to make a change in her professional life, Yost saw a Lomed L.A. flyer at a neighborhood store.

Now, she said, "some external force was steering me in this direction." Her work as a tutor, reinforced by weekly contacts with Glass, has so inspired her that she is taking steps toward attaining an emergency teaching credential.

While volunteers are encouraged to function as mentors to their assigned students, those at Emanuel are advised by general studies director Sari Goodman not to extend the friendship outside the classroom, for fear of seeming to slight the rest of the student body.

Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, the principal of Etz Jacob, has a different philosophy. His school is one that prides itself on never refusing a child, no matter what the family's social and financial circumstances may be.

Because his students benefit from learning specialists provided through federal programs like Title I, he values the Lomed volunteers less as academic tutors than as caring friends who may in time develop after-hours relationships with their young charges.

In choosing six children to participate in Lomed L.A., Harrosh said, "I selected kids who really need this personal touch ... somebody to talk to."

Harrosh's school has been involved in previous tutorial efforts. "The problem with these programs," he said, is that "if they're not consistent, they're a waste of time for the kids."

Not long ago, a group of high school students committed to tutoring Etz Jacob youngsters on a weekly basis. But their attendance was sporadic; on days when they canceled out, the children were emotionally crushed.

So far, Lomed L.A. has steered clear of this problem. Thanks to Glass' organizational skills, Lomed tutors show up faithfully, well primed for the challenges they may face.

Prospective volunteers should call Liz Glass or Ken Schaefler at the Bureau of Jewish Education. Their number is 323-761-8629.

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