Urban Improvement Corps continues long tradition of mentoring in New Haven

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Yale faculty Richard Hersh, education studies professor, expresses his views on urban education in America at the Urban Improvement Corps retreat in September. (Photo courtesy of UIC)

Tucked away in the basement of the Afro-American Cultural Center, a small room once filled with old drums and clutter is now the office for the Urban Improvement Corps (UIC). Founded in 1968, the group seeks to address the growing educational disparities in the New Haven area through tutoring and mentorship of New Haven youth.

UIC consists of 8 board members and 20 tutors, all Yale students. Together, they tutor 36 youths across 12 schools in New Haven twice a week, amounting to over 1,600 hours of tutoring every year.

But until recently, the group had been dormant. After a few years of inactivity, current juniors Ikenna Nzewi, Isiah Cruz, and Christopher Rim were approached by Claudia Merson, director of Public School Partnerships, and Rodney Cohen, former director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, to revive the mission of UIC in 2013. For Cruz, the opportunity to give back was one he couldn’t pass up.

“The mission that drives UIC is the mission that drives me,” he explained. “It’s the mission that brought me here today … Coming from an urban, low-income background, education has been my vehicle to the classrooms of Yale. Presented with this opportunity, it is my duty to give back. UIC allows me to leverage the resources at my behest to positively impact the trajectory of today’s underprivileged urban youth.”

UIC began tutoring in the fall of 2014 and has doubled in size every semester since. Despite the growth, UIC is struggling to keep up with demand for tutoring, mainly due to financial constraints. This semester, over 140 tutees are on the waitlist, and only 10 tutors were hired out of a pool of 85 applicants.

Part of the growing interest in being a tutor is that, unlike other tutoring programs, UIC tutors are paid for their time. Nzewi says this allows UIC to attract the most qualified tutors and increases their accountability, fostering long-term relationships with the tutees.

Tutors Dustin Nguyen ’18 and Lindsey Hogg ’17 also said they enjoy the opportunity to give back. Hogg, hired as part of an initial cohort of five tutors, added that the first semester was difficult but “laid the groundwork for tons of growth.”

Now co-presidents, Cruz and Nzewi have added a mandatory leadership component to the program, which requires that all board members and tutors participate in an off-campus weekend retreat. This year’s retreat featured talks by Yale faculty Richard Hersh, education studies professor, as well as by Josie Diaz, a clinical psychologist at the Dalton School in New York, and Carlos Torre, president of the New Haven Board of Education.

“Throughout my 30 years in education, I can say the single most important element in determining the quality of education is the quality of the relationship you build with the student,” Torre told the group at the retreat. “It doesn’t matter what technology or degrees the teacher has. It’s the human relationships. Everything else is secondary.”

It’s a message the organization has taken to heart and one of the keys to their success, said Cruz. Since its revival, 72% of tutees achieved a one-letter grade improvement and 30% achieved a two-letter grade improvement. Parents also rate the program highly with 85% of parents rating the tutors as “highly effective” and 15% as “effective.”

Parent Abe Colon said the program “transformed” his son and called it a “catalyst for all students who endeavor to have a better academic future.” Another parent, Jodi Naftel, said Joslyn Barnett ’18 helped her daughter apply to college while tutee Reaiah Rutherford said she wouldn’t have taken the SAT subject test if her tutor didn’t encourage her. She added she is interested in studying computer science after attending UIC’s Computer Science Core.

“At first, when I was told that I was being put into a tutoring program I was against it,” said Jair Edwards. “I didn’t think that I needed it but since starting the UIC program I have really enjoyed being a part of it… [My tutor] has helped me find a passion in writing and I know that there is more to come with him. I would recommend this program to anyone because you don’t only find a tutor but you find a friend.”

In addition to two weekly meetings with their tutees, tutors meet monthly to discuss progress, effective techniques, breakthroughs, and other issues. Tutors are also required to write weekly self-evaluations and monthly reflections to help identify areas that could be improved.

As UIC continues to expand, increased funding is becoming a priority, said Nguyen. The group currently receives money from the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Undergraduate Organizations Committee, Dwight Hall, and the New Haven Community Endowment Fund. For the retreat, UIC applied for a grant from RevYale, a group dedicated to connecting undergraduate student groups with the School of Management. Last month, the group partnered with Chipotle for a fundraiser and raised over $2,400 during a four-hour span.

The successful fundraiser will allow the group to admit five more students to its program and continue publicizing itself not just to New Haven families, but also to Yale students. Katherine Oh ’18, a tutor, hopes to make a difference in a student’s life through UIC and to encourage Yale students to “make an impact on even more New Haven children.”

Raquel Bräu Díaz ’18 decided to apply to be a tutor precisely because of UIC’s mission of building strong one-on-one relationships between the Yale students and their tutees.

“I hope to help my tutees accomplish their academic and non-academic goals by being a supportive role model and mentor for four years of their school lives,” she said. “With my tutee Londyn, who is 5 years old, I hope to be there for her through the most important years of her growth and help her develop her potential by nurturing her love of school and academics.”

For more information, visit UIC’s website.

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