They Understand Us

November 20, 2010

By Judy Masterson/Lake County News-Sun

When Waukegan High School student Marycarmen Flores was struggling to understand the concept of a geometry proof, let alone solve one, she might have given up in despair. Instead, she turned to her coach.

“He was a math and science genius,” Flores said. “He was very patient. He showed me ways to remember.”

Schuler Scholar coach Chirag Parikh has since moved on — he’s now in medical school — but the students he spent two years helping to do their best, pushing to achieve their best, will never forget him.

New coaches, AmeriCorps members, are working for the Schuler Scholar Program, which aims to level the playing field for highly motivated but disadvantaged students and to send them to the nation’s top colleges and universities.

The Lake Forest-based Schuler Family Foundation relies heavily on the dedication of its 15 scholar coaches, all recent college graduates, who offer one-on-one tutoring in reading and who design and lead enrichment seminars and field trips for Schuler students in high schools in Waukegan, Round Lake, Gurnee, Highland Park and Park Ridge.

The foundation is using a three-year AmeriCorps grant to help pay for academic coaching, an agreement that has so far paid about $300,000 or one-third of the cost. The foundation, which operates on an annual budget of $2 million, picks up the balance.

Academic coaching is a clever application of AmeriCorps, the national service program that offers a shoestring living allowance in exchange for a year of community service.

“They allow us to deliver very labor-intensive programming in a very efficient way,” said Schuler Executive Director Candace Browdy. “We’re paying our coaches a fraction of what we would pay full-time employees.”

Browdy considers her stable of young, energetic tutors a bargain, but also a treasure.

“They have this youthful exuberance,” she said. “They’re so enthusiastic and passionate, and we really pride ourselves on encouraging them to be creative, to be innovative, to take risks.”

Coaches like Kenneth Coleman, 22, of New Orleans; Nicholas Ulrich, 24, of Spokane, Wash.; and Maija Wigoda-Mikkila, 23, of Waukegan, are designing seminars that use Hip Hop and other icons of popular culture to entice students to think about issues like gender, ethics and scientific inquiry.

Ulrich, who earned degrees in math and physics at Washington State University, and who likely has a PhD in his future, said, “The hardest part of education is making what students need to learn exciting and interesting.”

A few weeks ago, during an after-school science discussion, Ulrich was talking to students about the change in seasons when the conversation shifted to the origins of the universe.

“All of a sudden they were fascinated,” Ulrich said. “It was question after question after question. If we want them to learn the subject matter, we have to get them to want to learn it.”

Like all Schuler Scholar coaches, Wigoda-Mikkila, a graduate of Northwestern University, teaches students at Round Lake High School how to really read, helps them unpack the dense paragraph, differentiate fact from opinion, discover the author’s meaning. She also teaches a junior seminar on gender roles.

“It’s been really rewarding,” she said. “I’m exposing them to college-level work.”

It was a scholar coach who helped Waukegan High senior Celia Cambray explore the themes of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” who edited her paper on “Dante’s Inferno,” who read the same piece she had to read for AP Government “so we could talk about it,” Cambray said.

“The coaches make it interesting, and that motivates me to learn,” she said. “They understand us.”

Coleman, a native of Belize who majored in African American studies at Carleton College, said he can identify with students who may not hear or speak English at home.

“I know what it’s like to feel foreign,” he said.

Ulrich and Wigoda-Mikkila live in a Schuler-owned home in Round Lake with three other scholar coaches. Coleman shares a house in Gurnee. Schuler provides a roof and pays the utilities for its coaches, who receive medical insurance, money for transportation and a living stipend of $11,800. If they complete one year of service, they are eligible for an education award of $5,350, which can be applied to outstanding student loans or to graduate school.

The recession has made it easier for AmeriCorps partners to recruit top talent.

“We’re able to get very high-achieving, motivated, bright young people because the job market is so tough,” Browdy said. “But at the same time, this generation is of the mindset that it’s very important to take a few years off to do some type of service before going to grad school or law school or into the workforce.”

“It’s not your typical entry-level job,” Wigoda-Mikkila said. “We have a lot of opportunity to take responsibility and do our own thing. I’m not just Xeroxing. I feel I’m really making a difference.”

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