It's a precarious time for students, especially New York's at-risk population. With a cut of $1.3 billion in state education aid, about 11,000 K-12 education positions, including teachers, teaching assistants and support staff, have been lost statewide this year. The cuts are making efforts to close the achievement gap that much harder.
One nonprofit program created by a NYSUT member is already helping to shore up the shortfall. Marty Kaminsky, a retired elementary school teacher and member of Retiree Council 45, is the founder of Golden Opportunity (GO), an organization in his hometown of Ithaca that pairs retired teachers with struggling elementary school students for one-on-one tutoring twice a week.
Kaminsky raises the funds to pay tutors $22.50 an hour; none of the money comes from local taxes.
He recently received a $50,000 grant from a local company, Vector Magnetics, that will allow him to expand. The publisher of Highlights for Children (for whom Kaminsky sometimes writes) is donating magazine subscriptions for all the students and 200 books.
What's unique about GO is that tutor and student stay together for the child's entire elementary school career, building trust, stability and true knowledge of the child's needs.
"My student knows that I won't give up on her. A lot of these kids don't have any consistency in their lives so we become an anchor," says tutor Kathy Long, a NYSUT retiree.
The program has now expanded into the middle school level, and Kaminsky hopes to eventually include high school. As students progress to the upper grades, they might be assigned to a new tutor who will stay with them through the secondary education years.
"I think it's important that my student has someone he trusts and knows is in his corner. He could go places; he is capable," says RC 45 member Pat Holmes, who tutors elementary school students and stays in touch with them even after they move on to another tutor.
"GO is quite effective," said Heather Sheridan Thomas, assistant superintendent for instructional services for Tompkins/Seneca/Tioga BOCES, who conducted a formal assessment of the program.
GO students, she said, showed measurable gains in reading, writing and math. And, parents and teachers have reported that students increased their ability to work independently, finish homework, and were more confident in their academic abilities.
It's a win-win-win-win situation. The students receive one-on-one help from a trained professional. Tutors do what they love without dealing with school bureaucracy. Classroom teachers see their students get the help they find difficult to deliver as class sizes increase. And, parents, often struggling financially, get the services for free because the tutors are paid by GO.
"You have to keep this program going. GO has been like the water to the seed for my daughter," one parent told Kaminsky.
Kaminsky began GO on a much smaller scale five years ago before he retired in 2010. "As my career was winding down, I asked myself if I was leaving my hometown any better than I found it. I knew that when I retired I would still have a lot of energy and I wanted to give back," he said.
Kaminsky is now committed full-time to his project. He created a board and will expand the program into four elementary schools and one middle school. With 35 tutors, the program serves 40 students.
"It is deeply rewarding to me, that I can use my insight and understanding of what children need to thrive to help those in my community who have not had a level playing field to finally have access to the tools that will help them to succeed in life," Kaminksy said.
Taking on what could possibly be a 12-year relationship is a lot to ask from tutors, and yet they seem enchanted with their involvement.
"My retirement would be very empty without this. This gives me something rewarding to do in the field that I am qualified for and that I love. It lifts my spirits to go over there," Long said.
"What a wonderful gift of retirement, to be able to watch a child's development over a period of years. There is nothing like seeing the light go on in their eyes," said Holmes. Best of all, she adds, "No report cards, no meetings, no endless paperwork! Just teaching."