It seemed like a good idea last summer.
A pandemic was keeping people at home. People normally busy with work and commutes and volunteer service suddenly weren’t.
What if those adults’ free time could be used to help kids?
That was Dr. Norma Brecker Blum’s thinking when she dreamed up the Jewish Educational Mentoring Alliance, designed to bring tutors to the students of the Yavneh Academy in Paramus.
Now, nine months later, Dr. Blum and Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, Yavneh’s principal, are pleased to report that what seemed to be a good idea turned out to be an excellent one.
And it is an idea they hope other schools pick up on.
Chani Perlman of Bergenfield is the mother of four Yavneh students — five come September — and a veteran educator.
“When I heard about this program, I felt this is a great way to contribute to our community,” she said. “Then I recognized this might be a good opportunity for my kid as well.”
As a tutor, Ms. Perlman worked with a fourth grader, who turned out to be the daughter of long-time friends.
She tutors the girl in Chumash — Bible — with virtual meetings twice a week.
“It’s a combination of reviewing, pre-teaching, and reading,” she said. “We go over comprehension and a general analysis of the storyline. There’s a lot of skill building. The most important thing is keeping her confidence up, making her feel real proud of what she’s learned.
“Her confidence has grown so much. She has the confidence to raise her hand in class and answer questions.”
The benefits are serious — but the experience is lighthearted.
“We always have fun together,” Ms. Perlman said. “We’re joking around.”
Ms. Perlman is in touch with the girl’s teacher, who sends review sheets before tests and advice on what to focus on. At the same time, Ms. Perlman asked the school to find a tutor to help her second grader, Akiva, with reading.
“The tutor is awesome,” Ms. Perlman said. “He goes above and beyond trying to find interesting reading for my son. I’m so indebted to him for taking time twice a week to read with a 7-year-old boy about NASA or Pokemon or anything that strikes his interest.”
Moshe Sanders of Bergenfield has three children; two are at Yavneh. “Each one gets tutoring once a week,” he said.
“My son Mati is getting tutoring in math. Last week he got a 92” — a significant improvement on his earlier math grades. His tutor is a retiree.
“She was super proud of him when he got his last test,” Mr. Sanders said. “He was proud he put the work in.”
His daughter Bella is being tutored by a Stern College student in math and Chumash. “It’s been great,” he added.
Ariel Blum, Dr. Blum’s son, who lives in Manhattan, is a Yavneh graduate. He has been tutoring a fourth grade boy from Israel “who did not speak a tremendous amount of English.” Mr. Blum, who soon will make aliyah, was able to conduct his tutoring sessions in Hebrew.
“The way he progressed is mind boggling,” Mr. Blum said. “I’m not so sure he really needs it any more.”
Rabbi Knapp cautions that amateur tutoring “doesn’t work for every child. A child that has a significant learning disability needs a specialist. It’s not a cure-all for everyone.
“But for those kids who need a little bit of support, a little bit of support can make all the difference,” he said. “Most adults can provide what these kids need. Most children benefit from having a caring adult take an interest and support them.”
Yavneh asks for character references from prospective tutors. “We want to do a little bit of a background check to make sure they’re appropriate,” Rabbi Knapp said.
“We didn’t think it would take off to this extent,” he continued. “We feel we hit on something that is beneficial and we’d love to share it. We want other people to benefit from it. Norma and I are available to share what we’ve learned.”
“It’s reproducible,” Dr. Blum said. “We know what to do, how to go about and get the tutors. We know the steps they need to start the program moving, what questions to ask, what traps to avoid.
“We have good stories from the students and good stories from the tutors. There’s no reason for every school not to do it.”