Young children often look up to older kids, and the dynamic that occurs when they interact can be powerful. Just ask Pat Cornfield.
A resource teacher with Alexian Brothers Health System’s Interfaith Parish Support Services (IPSS), he has spearheaded the development of an after-school “study buddy” program in which eight students from Montini Catholic High School in Lombard, Ill., assist 20 students at St. Pius X Parish School in Lombard with basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills.
“We were surprised at how quickly the communication between the high school helpers and St. Pius students was established,” says Cornfield, who retired in June 2007 after a 33-year career as a special-education teacher. “Because the St. Pius students look up to the high school students, they are able to stay focused and become re-energized to begin their homework, even after completing a long regular school day.”
Parents of the St. Pius X students say their children “are coming home excited about school and looking forward to improving their grades” after participating in the 75-minute after-school sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays, Cornfield says.
The program, which began in January, is still too new to gauge its effect on the students’ academic performance. “But in terms of the kids’ sense of enjoying the school day, having something to look forward to, having an opportunity to do homework and prepare for tests, their parents are reporting good things,” Cornfield says.
This achievement is significant, because the second- through fifth graders in the program are students who have struggled to succeed and require additional support that often is not available at parish schools because of limited resources. Cornfield’s objective is to nurture the program at St. Pius X and to expand it to other schools, so students who otherwise might not be able to continue their Catholic education can stay in their schools. “These students have a need that can’t be met without the partnership among Alexian Brothers, local parishes and the schools,” he says.
The study buddy program also benefits the high school students, who gain valuable experience, says Cornfield, who trained the Montini students before launching the program and, with Mike Blanchette, a Montini teacher, supervises their work with the St. Pius X students.
“The kinds of interactions they have with the kids are similar to the kind they might have if they aspire to be a social worker, a teacher or other ‘helping professional,’ where you’re working not only with facts and figures, but also with people as your clients,” Cornfield says. “All of the high school kids in the program are interested in exploring those types of careers, so it’s a good first step for them.”
Each of the Montini students is assigned to two or three St. Pius X students, depending on the number of high school students available for any given session. After some ice-breaking activities during the first two sessions, the Montini students have adapted quickly to their reversed roles in the classroom,
Cornfield says. “They just roll up their sleeves now and don’t need a lot of direction,” he says. “As the high school volunteers arrive and greet their ‘buddies,’ they quickly get down to work. Both groups of students are reporting that they’re getting satisfaction from participating in the program.”