By Bianca Moragne
It’s just another grade-school portable with four windows and a thick metal door, the kind meant to keep the shrill laughter of learning children inside and secure. Other than a sign on the door reading “HOSTS Learning,” nothing seems out of the ordinary.
But behind the broad metal door on Portable 3 at Metz Elementary School in East Austin is an unconventional pathway to success.
Housed inside on school days, eager children work to increase their reading levels, comprehension and vocabulary skills with support from University of Texas students under the HOSTS ‘Help One Student To Succeed’ Learning Program. Each tutoring session lasts 30 minutes and children scuttle through the portable during the day to learn in half hour sections with adult volunteers. Mentors are required to tutor one 30-minute session at the same time each week.
Currently, the HOSTS program serves about 85 students in addition to an overflow of mentors. “It’s an amazing thing to see,” says Metz Elementary teacher and HOSTS director, Melanie Perez. “I can see the growth of my students along with the UT students and that was the one thing I didn’t expect to see or really be affected by.”
As the director of the AmeriCorp Reading Program, Covington knows the importance of excellent elementary education. “If they start behind, they will likely stay behind and eventually drop out,” she says. “But, if you can catch the children early they have a chance to reach their potential.”
HOSTS began at Metz Elementary 12 years ago through funding from Austin Energy. Now, the program operates through a yearly award of $100,000 from the City of Austin. The money pays for Perez’s salary, her TA’s and administration supplies. Perez considered a regular teacher as determined by the AISD teacher salary schedule and paid accordingly.
According to the City of Austin’s Mentor and Tutoring Program, HOSTS Learning began as a national corporation, recognized by the United States Department of Education as a model for successful language arts improvement. Since its inception in 1971, HOSTS has expanded its operation into hundreds of elementary schools nationwide.
One effervescent HOSTS student, 7-year-old Eloy Garza, enjoys the one-on-one time with his mentor each week. Garza once struggled with reading, but now has grown fond of it. “I got helped with my tutors. I feel excited and happy to see them everyday because they can help me with my work and reading,” Garza says. “Now, I love reading.” Garza’s tutoring session is divided into 10-minute increments. First, he works on reading and comprehension skills, followed by vocabulary. The last 10 minutes are filled with a skilled activity.
The Metz, children increase their reading level one to three grades in the HOSTS program. When the number of session hours per week is averaged it equates to 1 1/2 of the Metz student population being touched, Perez says.
Perez wants to give this underlying mentor support to more children. “To have HOSTS at Metz for life is what we really want and this year we started to wish it was bigger. There are so many people out there that I wish could see what we do and how we do it, which is a very scary thought at the same time because the last thing I ever want is to be far removed from the classroom. I love to direct teach and have time with my kids. I’m afraid that if I were to take it too big I would lose some of the direct contact, but at the same time I would love to see this grow.”
The ideal classroom size is eight students, but Perez has pulled in a couple extra tables and chairs to serve Spanish-speaking students that have no or limited English. The students she takes that are Spanish-speaking work with bilingual mentors, who translate and give complete Spanish support, which leads to building an English vocabulary. There are never enough bilingual mentors to accommodate those students. Due to the school’s large
Hispanic population, there are often twice as many students with needs than bilingual mentors, she points out.
UT students hope to see an increase in bilingual support from campus and the community. “I believe that HOSTS’ attention to Spanish-speaking youth is great. They are preparing them for an education and environment that will not necessarily cater to them for very long,” says UT history student and previous HOSTS mentor, Jennifer Jenkins. “Being able to enhance their education and see examples of others in higher education situations, such as the HOSTS mentors, is a great motivational factor that pushes them towards success.”
Jenkins started volunteering for HOSTS after being introduced to the program through a professor in spring 2011. “I feel that I greatly affected the child I worked with. She came from a lower-income family, but came to school every day so willing to learn and to work hard in order to get to the same level as her peers,” Jenkins says. “She was substantially closer to her goal by the end of the semester than she was in the beginning, and I’m sure that she has continued to work toward her goals. And that, in itself, is an inspiration to me.”
Inspiring more students and community volunteers through HOSTS is a constant dream for Perez. “I would love to have all 500 students come through my door every day,” Perez says. “If I could have the best of both worlds: being able to make this program bigger, more successful and make it known, and for people see what we are really doing in here, that would be just perfect.”