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Creating a Culture of Learning: CHM@L Tutoring Program

“Well, don’t tell me, tell them,” says Robert St. Cyr, prompting the nine-year-old boy at the whiteboard to speak to four of his peers sitting at the long table in a well-appointed conference room at WeWork Apollo. With only the briefest hesitation, the boy confidently turned to explain the math problem.

St. Cyr is facilitating a session of the math tutoring project he founded at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, or CHM@L (215 G St. NE). Participants meet after school Mondays and Wednesdays at co-working space WeWork Apollo (810 Seventh St. NE), and Sunday afternoon at  the Northeast Library (330 Seventh St. NE) to share approaches to learning mathematics.

But St. Cyr has larger goals than solving math problems. He wants to foster a culture of self-sustained learning, as well as to increase parental involvement with education while capitalizing on the diversity in the classroom.

“I want to build a culture that promotes an intellectual curiosity,” he says, adding that he wants to make sure this includes kids with ‘undiscovered promise.’

A student performs a math equation on the board at the CHM@L Tutoring Project

A Culture of Learning
The tutoring project includes CHM@L students in grades three with a few students from grade four, making them about nine and ten years old. While St. Cyr leads Monday sessions and a volunteer from College to Congress leads on Wednesdays, parent participation is key, St. Cyr said. Not only do the parents ensure their children do the work prior to the session — itself an anomaly for Montessori students, where homework is not typical — they also encourage their children to learn and participate. “We never have any discipline problems,” St. Cyr said, crediting the presence of parents, “and this way we have multiple teaching styles in our intellectual toolbox.”

The one-hour sessions begin with a practice test to assess progress and identify issues and a discussion of the week’s work, usually led by a student who shows the others how to check that work is done correctly. After that, students learn a new concept, taught by one another or by session leaders such as St. Cyr and the parents.

“Right now, we prioritize preparation for PARCC testing after we learn new material,” St. Cyr said. “It gives us time to go deep on topics.” PARCC is the periodic Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test used to evaluate DC students. The tests are given to DCPS students in grades 3-8 and assess student learning against common core standards.

The Montessori philosophy discourages outside schoolwork prior to grades three or four so that students can focus on the Montessori cycle, said CHM@L parent Sameena Kluck, whose son participates in the project. “They want them to be exposed to outside life instead.”

Kluck said she started bringing her son to tutoring this past summer because his best friend was a participant and she thought it was a positive way for them to socialize during the break. But she says it has also been a nice way to ensure her son is ready for tests without putting too much emphasis on it.

Kluck says the preparation for PARCC is a big benefit of the sessions. Montessori education is student-directed, meaning students do not learn according to Common Core methods or using the standardized language. Students might understand concepts but do poorly on tests because they don’t understand the language of testing, Kluck said.

The students in the CHM@L tutoring project have finished the grade three math curriculum and are now working their way through fourth grade math. Kluck says this “fits with the philosophy of Montessori, where you work to whatever level the student is at, or to where their interest is.”

Making Things Happen
Born in Jamaica, St. Cyr finished high school and came to the United States in pursuit of education and opportunity landing in the District in 1991. He attended The George Washington University culminating in a Master of Science in Information Systems Management degree. Always interested in education, his interest in the project intensified when his daughter, now five years old, entered Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan.

He describes the project as “people coming together informally and making things happen.”

He brings method to the making. An Independent Verification Validation (IVV) professional, St. Cyr has applied his critical skills to create a tutoring system that both complements the students’ in-school Montessori education and has measurable deliverables.

There is no cost to participants in the program. The WeWork conference room space was donated by SouSou Investments. Founder and CEO Fonta Gilliam has offices at WeWork and is the parent of Kindergarten CHM@L student. She said that all the parents agree that St. Cyr has done an exceptional job with limited resources.

“When I learned of the academic challenges facing our students and families, I felt strongly that we needed to DO something,” she said. “My company had the resources to help improve student test scores in a tangible way.”

“I encourage other local businesses to explore creative ways to support community initiatives.”

St. Cyr said learning in a location other than school is beneficial to the project. Montessori programs emphasize aesthetics and the role they play in education.

“It’s a swanky space,” he said, “and they see what a working world looks like.”

St. Cyr underwrites some of the other material costs, about $1500 a year for the Tutorcruncher cloud-based software and Sadlier textbooks and work books. He said he follows a ‘Flipped Classroom’ concept, providing one or two videos from Mac Antics or the Khan Academy for parents and students to watch prior to sessions.

“Building a culture of learning, you need to support those things,” he said. “I didn’t want there to be fees associated, even for those who could pay them,” because he wants to prevent differences in access or entitlement from affecting overall commitment and excitement about learning.

“There’s nothing else I could spend that amount on that would have that kind of effect,” St. Cyr said. “The return on it is so incredible.”

Fonta Gilliam, Founder and CEO of Sou Sou Investments, sits in her office at WeWork Apollo. Sou Sou Investments donated conference room time to the project. “I encourage other local businesses to explore creative ways to support community initiatives,” she said.

‘It Puts a Smile on My Face’
One thing St. Cyr knows he wants is a deliverable with recommendations for the school and the system. He is documenting his work in hopes that the tutoring program can be duplicated in other schools, with adaptations suitable to other schools. “You’d want to adapt it to different schools,” he said, “that where ‘nimble’ comes back in.”

He said Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE) reached out during an examination of education activism in District wards. They were interested in the model, he said, and they think other parents at other schools could get involved.

But St. Cyr himself is already committed. “I really love this work. It puts a smile on my face,” he said. “At some point I might want to switch focuses, make a career change.”

St. Cyr said that he recognizes that tutoring is not the only factor affecting how kids succeed in school and feel about learning. He says that the push from adults and peers to learn is hard to quantify, but important. “It’s a small thing, but it acts like a virus. It infects everything and everyone, even students not involved with the program,” he said. “You’ve got to get the ball rolling.”

It becomes obvious that this is true at the end of the Monday session. Along with some younger siblings of the students, his five-year old daughter Margot attends the sessions. As the students disperse, she approaches him and says, “Daddy, can we do some math?”

St. Cyr said this happens frequently. “So I strike while the iron is hot, and try to put some knowledge in her head.”

Together they do equations, writing really, really close to the bottom of the conference room whiteboard as the room empties around them.


Learn more about Robert St. Cyr and his project by following his thoughts at ittakesavillage.blog. Learn more about Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan and Montessori Philosophy at http://capitolhillmontessorischool.org/

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