Two Dwight Hall programs — Kujichagulia and Amigos — have remarkably similar missions, yet slight differences in their structure leave one thriving and the other virtually nonexistent.
While members of Kujichagulia enter Sacred Heart School every week to mentor fifth through eighth graders, Amigos, which is intended to provide a similar service to Wilbur Cross High School, has not had any participants this year.
Participants say Kujichagulia is successful because it partners each mentor with a single student for four years, while Amigos failed since it was completely reliant on student volunteers who came and went each year.
Every year, hundreds of undergraduates enter New Haven schools to tutor, mentor or teach as part of Dwight Hall programs like Amigos or Kujichagulia. Whether the students volunteer out of a genuine social conscience or out of a desire to build their resumes, they represent an enormous resource for local schools. But sometimes that resource can be misallocated or simply evaporate, leaving behind confused New Haven students and frustrated administrators.
Since 1996, Yale has made strides to improve its effectiveness in local schools with the Public School Intern program. One Yale student is assigned to each local school to serve as a liaison between administrators and Dwight Hall to find new service programs that would be good matches for the school or to work out kinks in existing programs.
Josh Griggs ’03, the intern at Vincent Mauro Elementary School and co-education network coordinator for Dwight Hall, said that for the most part, schools are receptive to Yale students, but problems do arise.
“The administrators are generally easy to work with,” Griggs said. “But they do take in a perception of Yale students that is somewhat justifiable. Students are constantly revolving every couple of years. Other problems arise when students come in unprepared or overstep their bounds.”
Tish Bravo ’02, Griggs’ fellow education coordinator at Dwight Hall, agreed that students’ backing out of their commitments to the schools is a problem.
School administrators often complain to Bravo that Yale volunteers fail to show up at their scheduled times.
“The number one thing would be to follow through,” Bravo said. “They also have to realize the world works on a different schedule.”
Even though students, who generally are in New Haven for four years, prefer short single-year commitments, this transiency can cause problems for the schools they are trying to serve. In past years, the Amigos program helped build connections with Hispanic students at Wilbur Cross High School. But this year, no one from Yale ever got in touch with the administrator who was running the program at the high school, and the program never took off. Though there are plans for continuing it next year, damage has been done to a network at a school with a sizeable Hispanic population, Wilbur Cross service coordinator Tom Segrue said.
Success through continuity
Whereas Amigos fell through this year, Griggs said Kujichagulia is a perfect example of the type of commitment a program should have.
Founded in 1999, Kujichagulia includes 15 mentors who go to Sacred Heart to mentor minority students. The mentors meet with fifth-grade students for several weeks before they are each assigned a student with whom they seem to work well. The mentors then meet with their middle schoolers three to four hours each week until the student graduates from eighth grade.
Program leader Aisha Gayle ’02 said the amount of time her program devotes to students is necessary to foster a good relationship.
“I think that it’s very important in these children’s lives,” Gayle said. “Most of the parents are wonderful but to have a stable influence in their lives is wonderful. It’s great to have someone closer to their age taking time out of their schedule to work with them.”
Gayle said most relationships will not end when Yale students leave New Haven.
“Because you develop such a close relationship with this person, you’ll never let that go,” Gayle said.
Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, a spokeswoman for the New Haven public schools, agreed that maintaining relationships for longer than a year is important.
“Longevity is the key,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “It takes a while to build that relationship up to where you can see how much you can help. I think it’s unrealistic to think you can go in for a year and get a meaningful experience.”
Perhaps the most serious flaw many volunteers pointed to in Dwight Hall’s programs is their failure to educate Yalies entering schools how to communicate effectively with students.
Griggs and Bravo both said an orientation program is in the works for next year that will prepare students for the challenges they will face in classrooms. The orientation program would also help volunteers be more effective tutors and mentors.
“Dwight Hall doesn’t offer a program for teaching the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in the classroom,” Bravo said. “Things like how to deal with difficult students and extreme situations are important to know.”
Claudia Merson, public school partnership coordinator at Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, said the internship program has been vital to Dwight Hall’s renaissance in recent years.
“There was an absence of leadership in the past,” Merson said. “Now interns will go in and organize one meeting for group leaders with administrators, whereas previously each student group met with administrators individually and you had seven different meetings a week.”
Merson said administrators often felt overwhelmed by requests from individual groups. With the liaisons, there has been significant improvement in the communication between Dwight Hall and the schools.
Alan Schoenfeld ’02, the public school intern at Wilbur Cross, said he is pleased with the progress Dwight Hall has made with the help of interns.
“I’m really content with the way things are progressing,” Schoenfeld said. “Dwight Hall is really benefitting from really good input from very talented, smart teachers in public schools.”
Yalies offer special skills, but not always welcome
Another problem, according to Griggs, is that often volunteer groups are created to serve needs Yalies believe exist, not necessarily the problems schools face. Students who possess a certain interest or talent will look to found a group that will best use that talent. But if the goal of the group does not mesh with a particular need in a school, then a mismatch occurs. Rather than adjusting to the demands of school problems, group leaders try to mold the schools to fit the group’s goals.
“Often the initiative does not match the need in the school,” Griggs said. “I hate to quote economics, but it’s a question of supply and demand, and sometimes they don’t match up.”
Allison Chapman, director of School Volunteers for New Haven, which coordinates service programs for the district, said she wishes that students would come to her office before forming groups with a specific purpose.
“Yale students often opt to form their own highly-specific groups,” Chapman said. “They tend to volunteer as a block, without much reference to what the district is telling us they need. Occasionally we get mixed messages from the schools.”
School Volunteers manages requests from adminstrators, teachers and parents in individual schools and then tries to match up volunteers that best fit that need. But if Yale students are circumventing that process by going directly to the school, then mismatches can occur, Chapman said.
“Suppose you have a physics or science major who joins a tutoring program and works with a kindergartner,” Chapman said. “We need that physics major to work at Career High School. There tends to be a mismatch between human resources and jobs that need to be done in schools, and sometimes it’s frustrating.”
Old resentment lingers
A possible reason for the convoluted relationship between Dwight Hall and New Haven schools is the long-standing tension between Yale and the city. Since the 18th century, New Haveners have often viewed the University as an institution which uses the city’s resources but does not return the favor. Although Yale President Richard C. Levin has made improving town-gown relations a cornerstone of his administration, overcoming the lingering resentment among city residents is a chief obstacle to Yale volunteers.
“It differs on a case-by-case basis,” Griggs said. “If you have a parent who’s had a bad feeling for 20, 30 or 40 years, it’s difficult to change that. Often one interaction can alter someone’s opinion and it’s hard to overcome that.”
But Segrue said dwelling on this divide might just be the community’s skeptical view of public service.
“To me that sounds like a glass half-full, half-empty debate,” Segrue said. “As far as I can see, if somebody shows up, they’re wonderful. I have no town-gown issues.”
One possible way of overcoming this problem is by pairing Yalies with some of the hundreds of volunteers with no connection to the University that enter schools each year.
“There are a limited number of undergraduates, and many other people are involved in the schools,” Merson said. “It might be interesting to work with them and learn from these individuals, who are a great resource and do a great job.”
The best way to cooperate, Merson said, would be to have these other volunteers fill in for those periods when Yale is out of session but elementary and high school classes are continuing.
Regardless of effectiveness, a benefit
Despite the discontinuous nature of undergraduates’ commitments to the schools, those involved say the students are benefiting.
At Wilbur Cross, undergraduate community health educators teach classes of seniors about a variety of health-related topics. These seniors then go into freshman classes and perform similar presentations.
Segrue said by a simple trickle-down effect the impact the Yale educators have is profound.
“Any difference made in one individual’s life is a major impact,” Segrue said. “With the number of students involved, the impact is pretty substantial.”
Schoenfeld also leads an SAT tutoring program at Wilbur Cross that Segrue said has significantly improved students’ scores.
Both Griggs and Bravo agree that their favorite part of the job is working with students, rather than their broad administrative duties.
“Working with a kid is definitely the best and most rewarding part,” Griggs said. “It’s almost selfish, but when you help a kid with academic work and you see the improvement, you really feel like you’ve made a difference.”
Regardless of the volunteers’ sometimes unreliable service, Segrue said that whatever they do contribute is greatly appreciated.
“I have no criticism of Yale,” Segrue said. “Any society is enriched by people who step out of their way to help. I personally appreciate it and I know my kids do.”