Teaching is in Stephen Townsend’s blood. Both his parents were teachers growing up in Trinidad, but when it came time to choose a career, Townsend opted to be an engineer.
Now, in his retirement, he’s going back to his education roots.
Through Communities In Schools (CIS) of Chatham County, Townsend is a volunteer math tutor offering after-school test preparation courses for students at George Moses Horton Middle School.
“This is basically my full-time job right now,” Townsend said. “But this is really what I love to do. It doesn’t feel like a job for me, it’s a pleasure.”
Townsend teaches small groups of students virtually every school day to prepare them for end-of-grade tests (EOGs). He runs through practice problems from old tests and helps them understand difficult concepts.
Volunteer mentoring, though, is about more than just teaching math.
“It’s all about offering a community of support,” Townsend said. “We want them to succeed in school and achieve in life.”
To do this, Townsend sets three expectations with all his students: always show respect for others, set high goals and read at least 30 minutes every day.
“My goal is to help them get the ball in the paint,” he said, using a basketball analogy. “If you get the ball in the paint, there’s a good chance you can make the basket. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here.”
The proudest moments, he says, are when students he mentored in middle school graduate high school and go off to college. In his 14 years volunteering in Chatham County, Townsend has seen a plethora of his former mentees accomplish that feat.
He’s seen the transformative nature this kind of academic support can have inside and outside the classroom. Students have developed more confidence in themselves and been more respectful of their peers all because of the efforts of volunteering to help students, Townsend said.
“My goal is always to get to the point where they don’t need me anymore,” he said. “I want them to say, ‘Mr. Townsend, I got it.’”
This type of academic support and homework help extends beyond one retired man with a mission. It’s integral to what CIS, a nonprofit with the mission of surrounding students with a network of support for school and life, does through Chatham County Schools. After-school tutoring programs are also offered by CIS at Jordan-Matthews High School and Chatham Middle School.
Travis Patterson, CIS student support specialist at J-M, supervises the after-school tutoring program at his school. While he isn’t as knowledgeable in math as Townsend, he said just providing an intentional space for students to work together after school is beneficial.
The after-school program started at J-M in October. Patterson said quickly after it began, he realized how much it was needed.
“We used to offer this just for students referred by CIS,” he said. “But then they started bringing friends. Telling them like, ‘Hey just do your homework, sometimes there’s pizza.’ So now it’s just an open-door policy.”
The homework help is now offered twice weekly at J-M. It averages about a dozen students each session, all working on various things. Some students work independently, some work with volunteer tutors, and others work with peer-to-peer tutors volunteering with J-M’s Beta Club, which promotes leadership through community service.
And yes, Patterson often does bring them pizza, funded with money out of his own pocket.
Anecdotally, Patterson said he’s seen improvements in the students. Even if their grades aren’t spiking, he says he’s seen them more on task and more respectful than when the program first began. Most importantly, he said it served as a way to foster relationships in the community.
“At first, a lot of the kids were kind of standoffish, but now they’re coming into my office throughout the day,” Patterson said. “It opens the doors for us to have very real conversations with them about how things are going.”
That same relationship-building is also evident at Chatham Middle, according to Deanna Fox, CIS student support specialist at the school.
The program differs slightly from J-M, but the concept is the same: providing time, space and support to students in need to make sure homework gets done. It’s also the first school year this has been offered at Chatham Middle.
“A lot of the students that come, they honestly would not do the work at home,” Fox said. “Giving them the space to get some things done, we’ve seen some positive outcomes that way.”
Ilsen Lopez was the CIS student support specialist before Fox took over in December. She started the program at Chatham Middle in February and still assists weekly. She said she felt the program was needed because she saw firsthand how much students were struggling.
“Every time they’d go to the teacher, it was hard for them to get that one-on-one attention,” Lopez said.
The Chatham Middle homework help program also brings in six to seven weekly tutors from First United Methodist Church in Siler City. They assist students in math, social studies, Spanish and more. One of the volunteers from the church is Doug Guy, a retired math teacher.
He sits with Allison, an 8th grader, helping her find the slope and the y-intercept of a line.
“She says she’s not very good at math,” Guy said. “Well, she hasn’t convinced me yet. I happen to think she’s very good.”
Guy said he gains tremendous fulfillment from helping students understand the “language of math.” He said the concepts are universal, and seeing students gain that comprehension is invaluable. Guy also volunteers with math help at J-M’s CIS tutoring weekly, too.
“I just want them to believe that they are rational and reasonable people who can think critically about a problem,” he said.
All of these tutors — volunteers and CIS employees — view their work as part of a collective vision: offering a community of support for all students and uplifting them when they’re struggling.
The extra time, resources and effort that go into making a student successful are all just part of the mentoring process, according to Townsend.
“It’s just who I am,” he said.
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