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Teen Tutors Take Pride in Helping Younger Students During Math Power Hour

April 4, 2018

Fenwick’s Dominican caritas extends to children at St. Catherine - St. Lucy School a half-mile away in east Oak Park, near the Austin Neighborhood of Chicago.

By Mark Vruno


Fenwick student Sarai Zamora '19 helps a St. Catherine - St. Lucy grade schooler with a math word problem. (Fellow junior Haley Lopez is in the background.)

When a school-related topic becomes the subject of student social media posts after 11th Period, teachers know they’ve achieved something special. “If the juniors are ‘talking’ about it on Snapchat,” half-jokes Fenwick English Teacher and parent Geralyn Magrady, “it’s for real!” Last month, several “snaps” were abuzz about the school’s Tutoring Program at nearby St. Catherine - St. Lucy School.

The tutors meet with the 2nd through 8th-grade students for “Power Hour” two times a week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. This community-outreach initiative doesn’t have to reach too far because the private grade school is located just a few blocks east of Fenwick on Washington near Austin Blvd. in Oak Park. “It really is a great program that is gaining traction and starting to blossom,” says Ms. Magrady*, who took over this school year as tutor moderator, replacing Math Teacher Mrs. Maria Nowicki, who now moderates the Kairos senior retreats. The role of the tutors has evolved,” Magrady explains. “In the past they primarily helped the younger kids with their homework, but this year the principal asked for help in math.”


Fenwick alumna Mary Leamy '08 (left) and her mother, Sharon, who is Co-Principal at St. Catherine - St. Lucy School.

Sharon Leamy, Co-Principal at St. Catherine - St. Lucy, shares that math scores at her school are not very strong. “Most of our students score below grade level on standardized tests,” admits Mrs. Leamy, whose daughter, Mary, is a Friar from the Class of 2008. “We really do have great kids here, but many of them have not acquired the skills they need due to circumstances beyond their control. It is a challenge, and math is so foundational,” she continues. “It’s not something that can be fixed, say, in second grade and then goes away.

Complementary angles, fractions, measurements, multiplication tables and word problems all are in the late-afternoon academic mix. With no wireless Wi-Fi network in the old building (it pre-dates Fenwick), which means no iPad access, Magrady and the teenage tutors have gone “old school.” They are employing printed handouts as aids to help them teach the mathematical concepts. “I use the Common Core [State Standards] as a curriculum guide, then I pass along those materials to our student tutors,” says the 20-year teaching veteran.


For more space, the tutoring sessions have moved to the school's basement, where all the students can spread out more.

“Our tutors and mentors are mostly juniors earning their community-service hours,” notes Magrady, “but there are some seniors who do it simply because they love it! There is a high demand – there weren’t enough tutors at first. Brother Trout helped us to spread the word, and now we have more than 30 students participating,” which represent approximately 3% of the FHS student body.

On a Tuesday late afternoon in mid-February, a record number of tutors showed up to help the grade-schoolers; the ratio is approximately two to three students for each tutor. “The little kids love it,” Magrady reports. In a pre-Valentine’s Day email to the tutors on Feb. 13th, she praised:

“Wow! What a showing today! With 18 tutors from Fenwick, we were able to work one-on-one with most kids, and two-to-one in other cases. That’s exactly what I envisioned when starting this endeavor! When we ran out of chairs, our Fenwick team offered up their spots. When the younger ones didn’t have enough handouts, our Fenwick team created flash cards and played Math Bingo. I listened in on patient tutors, and I witnessed more student smiles than ever before. I am so proud of you! Let's keep this going!”

Mack Is Back

At a session in early March, Fenwick junior Michael Mack ’19, a swimmer from the Northwest Side of Chicago, sat at one of five tables in the school’s basement. A trio of younger boys were glued to every word he said. (Some of the older boys come after basketball practice.) Mack had to give up tutoring while his sport was in season.


Fenwick tutor and student-athlete Michael Mack '19 is a favorite among some of the younger boys.

“Michael had forged a bond with one of the 3rd-grade boys,” Magrady says, and it was really difficult for the little guy when his role model was gone. Now that Mack is back, no one is happier than that nine-year-old who looks up to him, she adds. No one except, perhaps, Co-Principal Leamy.

“Fenwick is an amazing partner,” Leamy says. “As we all know, Catholic schools sometimes don’t have sufficient resources. Your administration’s willingness to work with us has been a blessing. Our teachers say they see a difference.”

Approximately three-quarters of the school’s nearly 175 students stay in the building for after-care, she reports, giving a shout out to Natasha Miller, who “oversees our daycare operation. Ms. Miller makes sure those 100 children get where they need to be,” Leamy observes, “and she encourages many of them to go for tutoring. At first we received a lot of complaints, including, ‘I don’t like math.’” But they’ve found that their kids like the one-on-one attention and like working with older students instead of teachers or other adults. “The kids that come here to help from Fenwick are kind, respectful and patient,” she praises.

At another recent tutoring session, some Fenwick students were drilling 8th graders on their multiplication tables. “One youngster got four problems wrong, and each of the four had an ‘8’ in it,” Magrady recalls. “They drilled him hard on his eights and remedied the problem.”

Tutors learn, too

Fenwick students learn, too, in the process, including senior Shannon Hayes ’18 and juniors JP Gaffigan ’19 and Jimmy Groom ’19, who hail from suburban La Grange, Burr Ridge and Aurora, respectively. Alexandra “Alex” Medina ’19 and Gianni Ortiz ’19, fellow juniors from nearby Elmwood Park, have great rapport with the kids and truly enjoy their time with the St. Catherine-St. Lucy students. Ms. Ortiz considers herself “very lucky” to have the opportunity to help tutor students in math. “I help two kids at one time and have them work on a math packet,” she explains. “If they have trouble with a math problem, I then help them work through it so they understand how to solve it.

“It was really amazing to see how intelligent these young kids are,” Ortiz continues. “A young girl was not really interested in doing any work, and I happened to turn and help the other student. To my surprise she was completing long division problems with over six-digit numbers, with zero difficulty, which was far beyond my ability at that age. By participating in this small program I am learning many things as well as those who I am helping.”


Making learning fun is part of the tutors' charter, as evidenced by the smiles on senior Shannon Hayes (right) and the younger students she's mentoring.

Her classmate Shaunia Singleton ’19, who lives in Chicago, finds it “refreshing … to be able to help them better understand concepts they couldn’t quite get at first. Usually, tutors like me get the same group of children when sessions do begin and work on math packets from the last time we were there,” notes Ms. Singleton, a 2016 graduate of St. Catherine - St. Lucy. “We go over problems together with games sometimes, and it’s all-around fun despite it being a tutoring session at the core. I think what I’ve learned the most from this experience so far is how much of a positive impact you can have on kids’ learning when they’re so young.”

St. Catherine - St. Lucy School sends one or two of its students to Fenwick each year. “We are lucky enough to have some of our kids go to high school down the street,” Leamy shares, “and when they do, their lives change forever.”

12-year History

The tutoring program had humble beginnings. “This all started when my daughter was a junior at Fenwick [in 2006-07],” recalls Leamy, who lives in Riverside and was teaching 8th grade at the time. “We reached out to Father [then Brother] Greer,” who arranged for students to come into junior-high classrooms periodically. The mutual arrangement became more formalized under the direction of Mrs. Nowicki. “Maria set up consistent groups of tutors who came in twice a week to work with our 3rd and 4th graders on language arts and a new spelling program at the time,” she explains.

Last year some Fenwick boys started up a soccer camp for St. Catherine - St. Lucy children aged preschool through 3rd grade. “Mr. Groom [Fenwick’s principal] reached out to us, and we all made it happen, two times per week,” Leamy adds. This year another group of Friars is organizing a flag football camp.

Magrady, the faculty moderator now, floats from table to table, facilitating and assisting. Giving up an extra two hours per week for this endeavor may not seem like a lot, however, it can be challenging for the students after a full day at school. “I myself need a caffeine boost around 3:10, before I drive over,” Magrady reveals. “But when I get there, the kids are excited when I walk in. It can be difficult to keep their attention for longer than about 45 minutes.” By 4:10 or so, their focus begins to wane, which is why each session stays relatively short.


Moderator Ms. Magrady (center) in hover mode, as junior tutor Jacob Schiele (left) look on.

“I admire the patience of our student tutors and mentors,” she concludes. “A lot of them didn’t realize how difficult it is to actually explain math concepts such as the basic reduction of fractions.” The bottom line, of course, is when that revelatory light bulb goes on: “They feel like they’ve really taught them something,” and that can feel like a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

About St. Catherine - St. Lucy Parish

St. Catherine of Siena Parish, founded in 1889, and was the first Catholic parish established in Oak Park. In 1974, St. Catherine merged with St. Lucy Parish of the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. St. Lucy had been founded in 1911. The parish serves approximately 500 families, and its school has about 170 students (pre-K through 8th grade).

* In addition to teaching English at Fenwick and St. Luke School in River Forest, Ms. Magrady is a published author and the 2016 winner of the “Soon-to-be-Famous Illinois Author Project” sponsored by the Illinois Library Association. She also is the mother of two Friars: senior Ethan Magrady ’18 and junior Liam Magrady ’19.


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