Loyola Magazine

Bridging the gap

Loyola writing tutors participating in service-learning provide one-on-one support for Baltimore high schoolers

Jared Johnson was torn about what topic to tackle for an assignment in his global politics class at Baltimore City College high school.

Should he write on abortion policy? Gun violence? Maybe drugs and society?

Weighing the merits of each subject during a recent tutoring session at Loyola University Maryland’s Writing Center, the 17-year-old junior admitted to Peter Gribbon he didn’t know where to begin.

“I want to make it about stuff that goes on in the community,” Johnson said.

Gribbon, a 20-year-old junior from New York who is studying finance and management at Loyola, offered advice that’s worked for him: “Pick a topic you know the most about and one that’s relatively easy to research,” he said. “Whatever position you take, always find out what the other side would say and include it—mostly so you can shoot it down.”

As Gribbon and Johnson devised a plan for crafting the essay, similar one-on-one conversations between Loyola students and teens from area high schools buzzed around them. Some discussed current events. Others reviewed homework assignments, while still others prepared for upcoming exams.

The mentoring program is part of a partnership Loyola has developed with Bridges, an educational program with sites at St. Paul’s School and Gilman School that provides ongoing academic support for Baltimore City fourth through 12th graders—and is now supporting students into their post-high school years.

Loyola’s role focuses on secondary students who visit the Writing Center on the Evergreen campus once a week on Wednesday evenings for two-hour tutoring sessions.

Loyola mentors enroll in “Writing Center Practice and Theory,” an upper-level service-learning course through which they also separately tutor peers from Loyola.

“They read scholarly articles and write about what happens in their tutoring sessions,” said Craig Medvecky, Ph.D., associate director of the Writing Center and a writing faculty member who is teaching the service-learning course this semester. “They are able to combine analytic theory with practical experience.”

Lisa Zimmerelli, Ph.D., Writing Center director and associate professor of writing, began Loyola’s involvement with Bridges in 2011. Since then approximately 90 Loyola tutors have worked with nearly 80 high school youths.

This semester 14 high schoolers in the program hail from Baltimore City College, Baltimore School for the Arts, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Baltimore Polytechnic High School, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, and Western High School.

Some, including Johnson, have been working with Loyola tutors for several years.

“It’s a simple, uncomplicated model,” Zimmerelli said, “and yet important things happen in the context of the relationships that are developed. I really value the sense of collaboration.”

Loyola students also assist with SAT preparation and offer guidance in navigating the college application process. And because only strong students are accepted as tutors, they provide the high schoolers models to emulate.

“What we’re teaching is more about good study habits than actual in-class facts,” Gribbon said. “We know what it takes to succeed in high school, and we can pass on those study skills. That’s the real strength of the program.”

Madison Nicolao, a 20-year-old junior writing major from New Jersey, worked in the Bridges partnership last year. She wanted to help prepare students to be successful in high school and beyond, she said.

“Some of these kids are at risk of failing out of high school, or they don’t have the right setting at home to do their work,” she said. “In my high school, everyone had a tutor for SATs and took the SAT prep courses. It was all afforded to us. Many of these students don’t have the same opportunities.”

Victoria Brown, who manages Bridges’ middle and high school guidance efforts, is present for every tutoring session at Loyola. She noted that the Bridges students who study at Loyola have all been recommended by their teachers as students who have great potential.

The tutors and their students begin every session with pizza and time to socialize, Brown said. During a recent gathering, they sang happy birthday to a young woman from Baltimore City College and enjoyed cupcakes. The Bridges students also attend sports games at Loyola and experience a bit of campus life.

Once a semester, tutors offer a “college night,” during which they provide a panel discussion on what to expect in college. They also present workshops on topics such as applying to college and seeking financial aid.

“Some of these kids will be first-generation college students,” Zimmerelli said. “To have that experience—over a semester, a year, or several years—gives them a sense of belonging on a college campus. They begin to feel really welcome. It becomes palpable over the course of our time with the students.”

The skills the Loyola students learn tutoring the Bridges teens transfer to their work with fellow Loyola students who visit the Writing Center for academic help, Zimmerelli said.

“There is a real development of empathy that I think happens because of the service-learning,” she explained.

The partnership speaks to Loyola’s core values as a Jesuit university—especially the promotion of diversity and social justice, Zimmerelli said.

In a 2015 qualitative study of the Loyola-Bridges program, Zimmerelli pointed out that the partnership promotes cross-racial and cross-class affiliations, leading to more inclusive attitudes among college students. She said Loyola students help “demythologize the liberal arts experience,” and Bridges students, in turn, help “demystify” tutoring and “demythologize” the stereotypical urban experience.

Bridges began in 1993 at St. Paul’s School as a summer enrichment program for students from Coldstream Park Elementary School in Baltimore. It grew over the years into a comprehensive nine-year program and support network for Baltimore youths ages 9 to 18.

Students enter Bridges at the end of third grade and may participate through 12th grade. In addition to the Loyola component for high school tutoring, other aspects of the program include school year programs, one-on-one guidance support, other tutoring sessions, summer programs, enrichment opportunities, and more.

One graduate of the Bridges program went on to become a student at Loyola. Others have been accepted to universities including The Johns Hopkins University, Coppin State University, Frostburg State University, and McDaniel College.

Johnson, the Bridges student from Baltimore City College, believes he is on more solid academic footing after two years of tutoring at Loyola. When he started high school, he was getting mostly Cs. Now, he said, he earns mostly Bs.

“I need this type of surrounding and this type of environment to elevate how I perform in class,” he said. “Academically, I didn’t have the collaboration. I didn’t have someone with me one-on-one. That’s what I was missing.”

Johnson, an offensive guard and nose tackle on his school’s football team, dreams of playing in the NFL. It’s more realistic, he knows, to dream about college.

“I most definitely want to go to college,” he said. “I will be one of the first in my family to do that.”

His goal after earning his college degree? “I want to be an oceanographer, an audio engineer, or have a career in sailing,” he said, adding that he hopes to return to Loyola to encourage future Bridges students to persevere in the program.

“The way they’ve helped me and motivated me makes me want to return the favor,” he said. “It’s been so positive. It’s a wonderful program.”