By Emily Elliott
A sixth-grade girl experiencing homelessness in Charlotte in 2009 remarked over dinner, “I swear, sometimes my school feels invisible.” Investigating further, I saw that less than half of the students were performing on grade level at the time in this child’s school. At the time, I was an investment banking analyst and soon became a volunteer tutor in this child’s school. Immediately I saw the tremendous impact on students’ skills and confidence when they are given one-on-one attention. Irritated upon learning that many students across the nation are progressing to subsequent grades without the necessary skills, and recognizing how different this practice was from my own upbringing and opportunities, I transitioned from finance into teaching.
Through my teaching experience and other work in education reform on the West Coast, I realized that a teacher alone cannot always move the dial, that schools are too segregated by race and class, and that education technology may not be the magic solution either.
With the belief that volunteer time is the only resource available to public schools not yet being fully leveraged, I joined Heart Math Tutoring (Heart) in 2013. In partnership with fantastic staff, volunteers, donors, and schools, we are playing a vital role in youth development. We are helping kids learn.
Success of Heart
Heart is a nonprofit with a mission to ensure that all elementary students develop the strong foundation in math and enthusiasm for academics needed for long-term success, by helping schools use volunteers as tutors. Heart is a math intervention program that recruits, trains and supports volunteers to work as tutors in high-poverty concentration elementary schools. It is the only volunteer-delivered, math-focused intervention used during the school day in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) schools and, to our knowledge, in the U.S.
Currently Heart serves 400 students in eight CMS schools located in the city’s high-poverty areas. Sixty percent of economically disadvantaged students in CMS perform below grade level in math. Heart uses research-based assessments and provides volunteer-friendly lesson plans that use hands-on activities and games to target the gaps of each individual student. To date, 97% of students tutored by Heart have met program growth goals set in partnership with math specialists at CMS and UNC Charlotte. Just last year, students tutored by Heart volunteers collectively grew from mastering 32% to 63% of skills needed, based on grade level standards, while in Heart.
Our volunteer tutors are true heroes when working with the students in the classroom. They are 50% delivering the math curriculum and 50% being a positive influence. In our program, we measure students’ growth both in math skills and in academic confidence and/or enthusiasm.
Heart’s 450 volunteer tutors are caring community members who commit one hour per week in one-on-one tutoring sessions during the school day. The manageable time commitment combined with a structured, effective program allows Heart to tap a diverse volunteer base: 44% of tutors are male; more than 70% of tutors have full time jobs. The Charlotte community – from employers to faith and civic groups – is rallying around our students in need! Last year, 100% of tutors rated their experience with Heart as “positive.”
Students love seeing their tutor at their classroom door each week, ready to work on the next lesson! More than 90% of teachers surveyed believe their students showed increased confidence and enthusiasm in math as a result of Heart Math Tutoring. In addition, 96% of our tutors believe they had a positive influence on students’ confidence about and understanding of math.
It Takes a Team
For parents, we ensure that math games and activities from Heart’s curriculum can be reinforced at home, attend school-wide curriculum nights, and host parent education events.
Funding from community partners allows Heart to recruit and support our dedicated volunteers, who give students the skills and confidence to succeed. Some of our largest funding partners to date include: Social Venture Partners Charlotte, Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina Foundation, The Belk Foundation, The Global Endowment Management (GEM) Foundation, and Wells Fargo.
The Heart of Social Mobility
A 2013 study by Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley shows that upward mobility for children in poverty is more difficult in Charlotte than in any of the country’s 50 largest cities. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force was created in response to this study and area foundations are also putting a focus on social mobility.
Heart impacts factors that contribute to social mobility – quality of public schools, segregation, and flow of social capital. Heart volunteers act as a resource for Charlotte’s public schools in addressing student academic need and are becoming a quickly growing community of public education advocates. Heart volunteer-student relationships are also often formed across lines of diversity, thus decreasing segregation and improving the flow of social capital among races and socio-economic groups.
Power of Heart
At Heart, we know that students must be numerically powerful far before entering their first algebra class and that arithmetic can be taught in a way that supports algebraic thinking later on. Lack of understanding at an early age is disempowering, with life-long consequences not only for opportunities directly tied to math skills, but also for a person’s ability to think and reason logically to figure out the world around them.
Heart tutors are putting skills, confidence, and opportunity into kids’ lives, and in the process, are making the city of Charlotte a better place to live, grow up and learn.
Emily Elliott is the executive director of Heart Math Tutoring – a nonprofit group dedicated to helping students in high-poverty concentration schools develop math skills and academic confidence.