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Building a better tutor

student standing on stairwell
By Aryeh Cohen-Wade

A few months after joining the LEAP tutoring program in his junior year, Thomas Downey ’16 saw that he had a problem.

“I realized about halfway through that I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Downey says.

LEAP (Learning and Exploring at Play), housed in the Rochester Center for Community Leadership, pairs undergraduates with city students in kindergarten though third grade, aiming to help children develop their language, literacy, math, and social skills. After finding that his tutoring was not making a “significant impact,” Downey was inspired to explore the academic research on how to make tutors more effective.

The result is a new two-credit course, designed by Downey and offered through the Warner School of Education, that will train students interested in tutoring. The course is the capstone of his project for the Kauffman Entrepreneurial Year (KEY) Scholars program, which offers students a fifth, tuition-free year to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors.

“I wanted to train college kids to be better tutors, to give them skills that they would need to become not just good tutors but effective tutors that are actually helping the kids that they work with, in order to make real change for them,” Downey says.

The goal of the course is to improve traditional methods of early childhood education to fit the needs of an impoverished community. Tutors will learn specific pedagogy that works best with the unique students of the Rochester City School District.

Lynn Gatto, assistant professor at the Warner School, helped Downey develop the course and will teach it this semester. During its pilot year, the course will only be open to students who are already involved in tutoring through LEAP, but Downey expects that in subsequent years the course will be open to all students.

“Tom’s own experiences as a tutor led to his strong desire to improve the experience of tutoring for the Rochester City School District and for other undergraduates,” Gatto says. “His project demonstrates how undergraduates can have an impact not only on the University of Rochester campus but also in the Rochester community.”

Downey’s project is somewhat unusual for the KEY program, as he is pursuing “social entrepreneurship” instead of a more traditional business-oriented venture.  Downey is also an Urban Fellow; the 10-week summer program enables students to serve with local community organizations, emphasizing civic engagement, education about urban issues, and an appreciation of crosscultural issues and urban life.

Downey is an audio and music engineering major and a member of the a cappella group the Midnight Ramblers. After graduation, he plans to apply to the Warner School with the goal of becoming a math teacher.