Volunteers in Education expands into more schools

A student and tutor work together at Northeast Range School during a Volunteers in Education session.

Volunteers in Education Founder Art Dale envisioned big things for the nonprofit tutoring program he started on the Range a decade ago.

He imagined it would one day become a statewide initiative.

Volunteers in Education (VinE) has, indeed, been achieving great things recently as it advances Dale’s vision by expanding into more and more Iron Range schools, pairing students who may have fallen through the cracks with volunteer tutors.

VinE has grown into “a stronger program” during the past year to “help students succeed,” says Executive Director Cassandra Hainey.

Students, she said, such as a particular fifth grader at Roosevelt Elementary in Virginia who last year went from having little interest in academics to showing great pride in his schoolwork.

Hainey smiles as she relays the story.

The student — like others who struggle with certain subjects or have learning issues — exhibited avoidance behaviors during the initial tutoring sessions. He would break pencils, ask for a snack, get up for a drink of water.

But having a tutor who he could rely on to spend individualized time with each week began to have an effect.

Roughly a few months later, the boy greeted his tutor by racing down the stairs at the school, ecstatic to show how his grade had improved from a D to a C.

“He was so excited and proud,” Hainey said. “He went from almost failing to passing. … It was wonderful to see how excited he was.”

Those are the kind of stories VinE produces regularly.

Hainey said she is “pleased” with the direction the program is taking.

The concept is simple: Volunteer tutors of all ages and walks of life — no experience as an educator is necessary — spend an hour each week working with students one-on-one or in small groups during the school day to assist in areas where the students are challenged.

Tutors have ranged in age from 16 to 87.

Last year, 71 tutors assisted 590 students in the schools that have adopted the program — Cherry, Franklin Elementary in Eveleth, Nelle Shean Elementary in Gilbert, Eveleth-Gilbert Junior High, Northeast Range in Babbitt, North Woods in Cook, Tower-Soudan, and South Ridge near Culver.

Additionally, VinE started last year in the Virginia public schools. “We were just getting our toes in the water” with the district, Hainey said.

Thanks to recent funding from the Virginia Community Foundation and to fifth grade “go-getter” teacher Amy Zadnikar, who has stepped up to be the VinE coordinator at the school, Hainey said she expects the program to expand at Roosevelt this school year.

“We have figured out a formula that works when starting out in a new school — what it takes to be successful,” said the executive director.

And that will be helpful with the anticipated upcoming addition of the Mountain Iron-Buhl School District.

“MI-B requested our services,” Hainey said. Superintendent Dr. Reggie Engebritson, who has served with the St. Louis County Schools, approached the program, she said.

While school officials are consistently supportive when learning about the initiative, this was first time a district sought out VinE, she noted. That provides validation that “they’ve seen what we’ve done and how (VinE) helps.”

Hainey said she met with the MI-B School Board, elementary and high school teachers and community members, and they are all onboard. Messiah Lutheran Church and American Bank, both of Mountain Iron, have already agreed to supply volunteers.

Hainey said she hopes to implement the program at MI-B as soon as possible.

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Students assisted through VinE may be struggling in school for a number of reasons, she explained.

Some may not have support at home or may simply be slower learners or have difficulty with certain subjects.

Their parents or guardians might struggle themselves with understanding a child’s schoolwork, or might not have time to assist with homework because of scheduling conflicts or shift work.

Or, a child may not quality for government-funded Title 1 educational services.

In any case, those children fall into a “gap” that VinE’s founder, a Lutheran minister from Soudan, noticed more than 10 years ago. It’s a space occupied by kids who are falling behind and who could benefit from a little extra help.

Dale began developing the program in 2007, and it launched in the Tower-Soudan, Cook, and Babbitt-Embarrass schools in 2009.

Sometimes having “quiet, dedicated time, with a tutor sitting next to them, helping them stay on task” can improve students’ comprehension — and confidence — greatly, Hainey said.

She remembers her own father reading to her books when she was a child. He was rather “silly about it,” not always speaking the exact words on the pages.

But Hainey said she learned from the one-on-one time that “reading is warm and wonderful … entertainment and fun.”

Teachers select students for VinE, she noted. “It’s good to have people on the ground who know which (students) are struggling” — which ones have hit a “speed bump.”

Those kids simply “need someone to help them get past that point and keep going.”

VinE is also beginning to offer “enrichment” to overachieving students.

The program — funded by the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota, the Northland Foundation, and other contributors, including the Eveleth Community Foundation — provides training for tutors with the help of the Minnesota Literacy Council. MLC and VinE created curriculum tailored to the area, Hainey said.

One of the exercises provides trainees with a simulation that helps them “remember what it’s like to be frustrated” and not understand a concept being taught.

VinE thrives because of financial contributions and dedicated volunteers, Hainey said, noting that employers who allow workers to take an hour each week to volunteer are also helping to boost employee morale — and increase community connections.

Tutors have a sense of “ownership in the school … and when you own something, you what what’s best for it.”

The Eveleth-Gilbert School District, which had 203 students in the program last year, is assisted by tutors from local businesses, such as Miners National Bank.

The program is also working to find creative ways to acquire volunteers— who include retired individuals; and now, more than ever, students themselves.

South Ridge School has “languished” in the past, mostly because it is not located within a city and is not as easily accessible to volunteers, Hainey said.

This year, VinE is working with the school’s guidance counselor to obtain high school tutors for the younger grades. The students will be trained and required to apply with a résumé — also good practice for their futures, she said.

Those students also have the advantage of having more recently learned the materials, she added. For instance, sixth grade math is taught a bit differently now; high schoolers are more familiar with the coursework.

Volunteering is “rewarding for the tutors, too,” Hainey said. VinE’s website contains testimonials from volunteers, teachers and students. “My heart did a dance the other day when I walked into the classroom and the children all smiled and cheered,” stated one tutor.

According to VinE’s 2018-2019 annual report: 96% of students surveyed said their tutor helped them better understand schoolwork; 97.5% said they were doing better or somewhat better in school with assistance from their tutor; and 98% said they feel better or somewhat better about school because of tutoring sessions.

At the small Tower-Soudan kindergarten to sixth grade school, each student has a chance to be tutored. The children are so excited to see the tutors, “they negotiate that it’s ‘their day,’” Hainey smiled. Just more proof that VinE tutors make a difference, she said.

The executive director expects VinE to reach many more students this school year.

Perhaps, one day, it will cover all of Minnesota.

But for now, the program is working to expand its reach on the Iron Range.

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