Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 1, October 2007

The Revitalization of the Chinatown Tutoring Program

Jenny Chen

The Chinatown Tutoring Program at Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) arose out of the original Chinatown Tutoring Program. The original program held sentimental value for many students and alumnae and was legendary as a model student-coordinated service program based on collaboration between students at three colleges — Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania. Problems arose when the number of tutees dropped suddenly at the community center where tutoring took place, and Bryn Mawr students eventually discontinued their participation. The first time I heard about the program was at the end of the 2005-06 school year, through an e-mail sent out by the previous student coordinator; she was looking for someone to re-energize and redesign the program, perhaps at a different location in the Chinatown community. After speaking with the staff of the Civic Engagement Office and hearing about the emerging relationship between the Praxis program and FACTS, I decided to explore the possibility of relocating the tutoring program there.

FACTS, established and opened during the fall of 2005, has a very interesting history. The idea came from a group of Philadelphia activists, Asian Americans United (AAU). They were concerned that the education their children were receiving from the Philadelphia public school system did not have effective programs tailored to students with language barriers. After working together to create special programs that would address these issues, the group decided that the most effective approach would be to start a charter school to address the educational and community issues they were facing. Not only does FACTS provide education for the children who need special attention due to language barriers, but it also symbolizes the unity and sense of community for the families who are struggling to remain residents of Chinatown. FACTS provides free education, as well as transportation for those whose homes are more than one and a half miles away from the school. Currently kindergarten through 6th and soon expanding to kindergarten through 8th grade, FACTS serves a multiracial student body citywide and brings together children and families of different races and nationalities, both American-born and immigrant.

In the spring of 2006, Sanda Win, my fellow student coordinator, and I started planning ways to revitalize the Chinatown Tutoring Program. We first contacted Principal Debbie Wei before the school year of 2005-06 ended. Next, we hopped onto the R5 SEPTA train, walked through Chinatown and met with Principal Wei at FACTS a few weeks before the fall 2006 semester. I did not realize how much time and effort would need to be put into a partnership until this meeting. Even though a few good hours were spent talking about the goals of the partnership, the expectations of both the Bryn Mawr and  FACTS communities, and the logistics for the program, every little detail was not worked out until the end of October 2006.

Our main goal as the student coordinators was to put together a program that would best serve the community while giving the tutors as much flexibility as possible. Because many FACTS students are immigrants and need special attention, the FACTS staff needs tutors both throughout the school day for one-on-one tutoring and during the after-school program for homework help. Not only would FACTS benefit from the partnership; the tutors would also learn from this kind of experience.

Sanda and I developed a new tutoring program that would allow our tutors flexible hours, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, as long as they dedicated at least an hour every week to FACTS. During school hours, our tutors would be partnered with one or two students for one-on-one tutoring and extra classroom help. The tutors who preferred to work in a classroom setting would be placed in specific classrooms to act as teacher assistants. During the after-school program, our tutors would need to find ways to motivate the students to do homework and to work with those in need of individual help. We would also develop enrichment activities, such as arts and crafts, games and books.

In late September, even before the logistics were settled, Sanda and I informed the Bryn Mawr College student body of the tutoring opportunity at this new site. We were amazed at the number of responses we received: twenty-three students embraced the idea and wanted to be involved. At the beginning of the program, we took a trip together to Chinatown and FACTS for a special orientation given by Principal Wei to learn more about Chinatown’s history and the school’s culture. This orientation really helped set the tone for our tutoring program, since all of us understood where the FACTS community was coming from.

By the end of the semester, many FACTS staff complimented our tutors and thanked us for creating such a wonderful program. They were excited to continue this partnership with us after the winter break. Many staff members treated us as colleagues and asked us for input during class and in the after-school program. We also surveyed the tutors to see how we could improve our program for the following semester. Other than some minor problems with logistics, most of the feedback we received was very positive. In fact, throughout the program we received numerous e-mails from Bryn Mawr students, mostly the tutors’ friends, asking us if they could join as well.

Much to our delight, the number of tutors for the fall semester paled in comparison to the attendees at an orientation we held at the beginning of spring semester 2007. The room we reserved in Taylor Hall overflowed and left some students standing. Over 60 Bryn Mawr students showed interest in the program, but because of funding issues, we had to cap the program with an application process. The spring semester had 21 tutors, and a board was established to help Sanda and me organize and run the program.

The tutors constantly bumped into each other on our campus, and the sight of each other brought smiles to our faces as we exchanged greetings. Even though most of us did not see each other while we tutored at FACTS, we met every month to share our experiences and to work towards improving our program, bit by bit. Every time I stopped one of the tutors to see how she was doing at FACTS, I received a large grin and an answer that showed enthusiasm and satisfaction. We ended the semester with a celebration at FACTS during the after-school program and invited all the tutors, students and faculty members to join us. From the embraces we exchanged, one could see that we had found ourselves in a very welcoming community.

This partnership has allowed Bryn Mawr students to provide aid in an educational and social setting while permitting us to grow in many different respects. This kind of relationship thrives because of the type of environment FACTS fosters and the common interests that our tutors share — reaching out and making a difference in a local community. As the end of the spring semester approached, I could not help but think how hard it would be to refrain from visiting the school after the tutoring program ended in May.

On the day that was technically my last, one of my first graders approached me and asked when I would be coming back to teach them again. He told me how much he enjoyed the time I taught the class about density and Mr. Molecule and his family, and he said he wanted me to teach more often. Another student hugged me, and my heart melted. The more I thought that it would be the last day for me to see them again, the more my heart sank. Two weeks after my finals, I stood at the doorway of the first grade classroom as the students shouted my name with excitement and ran over to embrace me. I found myself returning to FACTS throughout May and June because I could not leave the students, or the relationships I have made with them. This is an experience that has changed me forever.

Jenny Chen ’09 is working towards a degree in chemistry with a concentration in biological sciences and a minor in education. She is one of the founders of the new tutoring program at FACTS. This program has brought her many joys, from seeing the tutors enthusiastically share their own experiences over a delicious meal at Rising Tide, a restaurant in Chinatown, to seeing the progress of a recent immigrant kindergartener, absorbing vocabulary and expanding the ways she will communicate with others.