On the last day before the long Easter weekend, several Winona Senior High School (WSHS) students sit on tables inside a classroom on the second floor of the high school. Friendly and welcoming, they greet everyone, stranger or not, who finds his or her way up to WSHS teacher Lora Hill’s classroom. The WSHS students chat with one another, some talk about their plans for the next couple of days, others rehash the day’s events. These are the brief moments that lead up to the start of Hill’s Challenge tutoring program. Because when the clock in the room strikes four, no excuses, it’s time to get down to the business of studying.
Photo by Amelia Wedemeyer
. Fortitude’s Challenge tutoring program pairs WSHS students with dedicated tutors. From left, Sam Flatten, Andrell Hudson, Lora Hill, Xander Culver, Erin Kappers and Xavier Pittman.
“It’s an extended version of Fortitude" — the WSHS student social justice group that Hill facilitates, which stands for Forever On Route To Independence, Tolerance, Understanding, Diversity and Education — "where we volunteer time to help the students [struggling with their] grades and assignments,” Andrell Hudson explained of the Challenge program.
Hudson, who is currently a senior at Winona State University (WSU) majoring in Special Education, is one of the core members of the tutoring team, many of whom are education students at WSU. Like a lot of the tutors involved in the program, he doesn’t accept a small stipend offered by Hill, and he isn’t tutoring the kids because he has to for a class. Hudson arrives every Wednesday and Thursday to tutor WSHS students for two hours because it’s what he is passionate about, especially as an African American male.
“It’s extremely important,” Hudson said. “Not only can I relate to them, I’m also an African American male who is doing very well and is positive and encouraging them to further their education. For them to see that, for me to just show up on a consistent basis — a lot of these kids, they don’t have a lot of consistency in their lives — it has had a great effect on them.”
While low grades don’t discriminate, race is still a factor to consider with an education gap within the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) district that shows white students are performing nearly three times better than African American students. According to 2013 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments data in reading and math, African American WAPS students are 19 percent proficient in math and 26 percent proficient in reading, compared to white WAPS students who are 64 percent proficient in math and 60 percent proficient in reading.
“It’s an immense impact,” Alexander “Xander” Culver, another tutor who is also a WSU senior education major, said. “[As an African American male,] I’m somebody they can really relate to.”
Culver, who is also a member of the WSU men’s basketball team, understands his role is more than just someone who comes in and tutors failing students. He, like many of the other Challenge tutors, understands the positive impact he can have as a mentor and role model, which means making sure to arrive on time with a positive mood, ready to teach.
“Sometimes it’s hard to come here after you’ve had a full day,” Culver, who arrives at WSHS after student teaching, admitted. “You’ve gotta come and give these students your all; sometimes it’s hard. But then it’s easy in a sense because you want to do it, and you understand it’s necessary.”
No one aims to earn bad grades, even though it can sometimes seem like it based on a perusal of the report cards of students who earn a steady stream of Ds and Fs. It is a hard habit to break that only becomes more difficult as people begin to care less and less. If no one is there to care, the student is not going to want to care either, which Hill said is why she recruits the students she does.
“When I started this program, Xander and Andrell were the first two I called,” Hill remembered.
For Culver and Hudson, giving everything they have to the WSHS students not only applies to their dedication inside Hill’s classroom, but their interaction with the students outside of it. Both have been known to play a game or two of basketball with some of the kids they tutor. “They’re great, they’re funny. They’re always entertaining,” Culver said of his students, adding, “it’s always interesting to learn how talented they are.”
Like Culver and Hudson, Erin Kappers, another education major and senior at WSU, strives to make a difference in the lives of the WSHS students she tutors in math and science, her specialties. Even though she’s only been with Challenge since February of this year, Kappers has made sure to see her students in the school play. She, too, understands her role as mentor and as an example to the students, especially the girls. “I want to help young women in math and science,” she explained, noting that traditionally, both subjects have attracted more men than women in future aspirations. “I want them to become comfortable. [I want them] to know they can succeed in math and science.”
For many, if not all, of the WSHS students who come to Challenge on a regular basis, within a semester or two their grades have seen significant changes, for the better, of course. For the tutors, this is the best part — the moment of receiving positive feedback, whether it be from a test score, a letter grade, or a comment from a teacher.
“It’s nice to see them relieved of stress,” tutor and WSHS alum Sam Flatten said.
Culver agreed, adding, “I’m genuinely elated when I see their progress. It wasn’t always pretty, [but it has been worth it to] see improvements and watch the students get their lives back on track. That’s what I want to dedicate my life to.”