Retired teacher Cindy Ross-Katz knows that one of the best paths to learning is to educate others.
But the former Woodland Hills High School English teacher was surprised by how much she could learn from the youngsters she had been recruited to mentor through the OASIS Tutoring Program.
For example, when she brought a book on black history to a Woodland Hills Academy student, she wasn't expecting the second-grader to school her on the history of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia inside of a large crate in the late 1800s.
"She knew all about him. She's a very bright girl with all this knowledge all over the place," said Mrs. Ross-Katz, who said she hadn't known the story before hearing it from the student.
The announcement that OASIS Pittsburgh would discontinue most of its adult education programs at the end of April left participants at a loss as to how to replace the knowledge they had gained through weekly classes and discussions. Some turned to the OASIS tutoring program, which will continue in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and Woodland Hills School District, taking their knowledge to classrooms to share it with students most in need of the extra attention.
Mentors work with elementary students who have been identified as falling behind in some areas of learning but who can rebound with individual attention. With approximately $20,000 from the Buhl Foundation and $25,000 from the Grable Foundation, the tutoring initiative will allow volunteers to work with students more than once a week in what is called high-impact tutoring.
"They're like little sponges. They respond so positively to any kind of attention, especially one-on-one attention. They blossom right before your eyes," said tutor Mimi DiLisio, 62, who works with a second-grade boy at Shaffer Elementary in Woodland Hills who is learning English as a second language.
Tutor Marsha Tharp of Churchill, who works with two sixth-grade students at Shaffer, said learning tools such as the "Getting to Know Me" book the organization creates with students helps the tutors get acquainted with each student's interests so they can plan lessons accordingly.
"Both students play junior varsity football and basketball, so sports, as with most 12- to 14-year-old guys, that's a big interest. So I tried to relate things on a sports basis," she said. She connected the relationship between reading and thinking using the ins and outs of playing a game.
The book, as well as the entire mentoring experience, also allows mentors who are age 50 or older to find topics that will help them relate to students who often are younger than their own children.
"I think it's a great form of interaction between generations. The whole purpose of this intergenerational tutoring isn't just anyone working with kids, it's an older person working with kids," said tutor Carol Congedo, who is awaiting a student to tutor at Wilkins Elementary.
As much as she takes pride in helping the community at large through tutoring, Mrs. Congedo said the best part of the program is seeing individual students thrive because of her influence. She said a successful day for a student whose learning disabilities she described as "critical" was one of her proudest moments in working with the program.
"He came to me and said, 'Mrs. Congedo, I had to read at the whiteboard today and I did it perfect and the class applauded,' " she said.
"That's an impact -- that was a child who was two grades behind in reading."
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. First Published March 10, 2011 10:45 AM