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Afterschool specialists

These tutors give a boost to students' grades, and to themselves

With their easy, teasing banter, Crismel Calderon and Sheetal Shah could be sisters or schoolmates as they sit side by side, hunting through a thesaurus for the right word to describe a character in Gloria Naylor's novel, ''The Women of Brewster Place."

''How do you say this word: 'pom-poos'?" Calderon asks, brow furrowed.

''Pompous," Shah enunciates, then defines it.

''Oh, I like that," Calderon exclaims, brightening. ''It describes a lot of them."

Calderon and Shah are neither sisters nor schoolmates. Their bond, and their sense of shared endeavor, grows out of the many hours they have spent poring over Calderon's book reports and math problems. But these daily tutoring sessions by Shah are designed to do more than simply help Calderon master her homework. The goal is to, through both instruction and example, expand the horizons of her young life.

''Sometimes when I feel like giving up she keeps pushing me to the limit," says Calderon, 16, of Roslindale. ''But it's not boot camp. She makes it fun."

Shah gave up a lot for the chance to sit at this table in this second-floor classroom at the MATCH School on Commonwealth Avenue, where the walls are plastered with the periodic table, a diagram of a cell membrane, and quotations from Nelson Mandela and Albert Einstein. She left Atlanta, where she was a highly paid corporate consultant, to live in a dorm at age 25 and make $600 per month as a tutor to half a dozen Boston teenagers.

Others might not define that as upward mobility, but Shah frames her choice in simple, personal terms. ''I really wanted to work with people who needed help," she explains. ''I wanted to have an impact."

A similar idealism and sense of mission seems to animate the 41 other tutors at work in the Media and Technology Charter High School, housed in a building that was the longtime home of Ellis the Rim Man auto parts store. ''Sorry, I'm in the middle of a tutorial!" one young woman exclaims in response to a question from executive director Alan Safran, ponytail flying as she grabs a piece of paper from a desk and hastens down a hallway.

Drawn primarily from the ranks of recent college graduates, the tutors receive three weeks of training and are then plunged into the challenge of working closely with mostly low-income Boston students. Many of the students need that kind of individual academic attention, because they had floundered or not been sufficiently challenged in the Boston public schools. Each tutor handles four or five students from September to June, helping them with math, science, history, English, or SAT preparation, depending on the grades the students are in.

For MATCH students facing the stiffest academic demands they've ever confronted, the tutors are a kind of lifeline. ''The first week it was overwhelming, but the tutors really encouraged us," says Jayme Fillmore, 16, of Dorchester. As Calderon nods in agreement, Fillmore adds that Shah ''motivates us to go further. Sometimes it can be a pain, but she helps us get good grades."

Their efforts extend beyond the classroom. For instance, in a bid to cement the home-school connection considered vital to academic success, the tutors make frequent phone calls home to their students' parents. They occasionally take the students on field trips -- Shah, for instance, plans to soon take Calderon, Fillmore, and several others to New York City -- and they lend a sympathetic ear when a student wants to talk about boyfriend or girlfriend troubles.

All in all, the tutors serve as a combination of teacher, disciplinarian, role model, and confidant to students not much younger than themselves. It all adds up to 50-plus hours a week of work for the tutors.

Twenty-four of the 42 tutors are funded by AmeriCorps, the national community service organization, and receive slightly higher stipends -- $850 a month -- while tutoring at either Brighton High School or English High School in addition to the MATCH School.

One of them is 23-year-old Boston University graduate Jared Taillefer. ''I'm not going to lie; it's been a struggle," acknowledges Taillefer, a Springfield native. ''But a good struggle."

While at BU, he was involved in a program with the Boston schools, and he saw a need he wanted to help fill. ''Boston gave me a lot, and I wanted to give back," he says. Although he focused on applied mathematics at BU, he has been so energized by tutoring that he now wants to make his career in charter schools.

The tutoring experience has opened his eyes to a world different from his own. The father of one of his students is in prison for life, he says. Another student was abandoned by his mother. Yet he is gratified by how those students and the others respond, both academically and personally, to one-on-one attention. ''You can see a measurable difference in the kids," he says. ''We push them to the next level."

And the students push themselves. Many of them travel up to an hour and a half by bus and subway to get to the MATCH School from neigborhoods such as Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Dorchester. What they find when they get there is an environment with more demanding academic and behavioral standards than they're used to. ''It's changed a lot for me," says Calderon. ''I was used to getting out of school at 1:45. Now I have to come here and give 100 percent till 5 o'clock each day."

Founded six years ago, the MATCH School is a tuition-free charter school whose stated goal is to develop ''courage, discipline, and perseverance" among its 185 students, ages 14 to 19, three quarters of whom come from low-income families. Each student is required to take six periods a day of classes and two periods of tutoring. Juniors take advanced-placement history; seniors are offered the chance to take a course at nearby Boston University. ''The mission of college success in a small, safe, rigorous place. That's what we're about," says Safran. Graduates of the school have gone on to Georgetown, Brown, Spelman College, and Boston College.

Safran, the former deputy commissioner for administration and policy in the state Department of Education, says his pitch to potential tutors is a simple question: ''Hey, you want a chance to turn around kids' lives?" It is a question he seems to have answered in the affirmative himself. ''You fall in love with the kids," he admits. ''You know you can make a difference in the trajectory of a kid's life."

But the kids have to want to make a difference themselves. Any student who gets two D's has to repeat a grade; any student who gets a D or an F is required to take summer courses. There is a dress code and a rigorous code of conduct. ''Some kids don't make it here," acknowledges Safran. ''One kid was found with a knife, and he was expelled." There are less serious challenges for the tutors as well as they try to instill academic discipline in students who might not have experienced it before. At times like those, it helps to return to the third-floor dorm that the tutors share. ''You get frustrated with your kids, and you can come up here and vent," says Shah. ''There's always someone there to understand you."

More often, though, there is the sense that tutor and student are engaged in the communal enterprise of learning. Back in the classroom, Shah is helping Calderon and Fillmore navigate the treacherous terrain of the English language as they polish their essays. Fillmore reads from her essay: ''Butch seems to want to impregnate Mattie just to satisfy his own desires." Shah gently suggests that ''if you say 'sleep with,' the reader will get the point." Calderon, fretfully pushing her essay on Naylor's novel across the table toward Shah, tells her that ''something is wrong with my thesis." Shah reads it and says: ''Yeah, I don't think it's parallel. Look, you have adjective, noun, adjective, noun, and then adjective, not noun. That's where we're being thrown off."

So Calderon offers a new formulation of the sentence: '' 'She portrays men as ignorant individuals, emotional abusers, and domineering beings.' " Shah responds: ''I really don't like 'beings.' We have to change 'beings.' " Calderon takes the suggestions with good humor. At one point, when Shah explains to Calderon what it means to have a ''complex," the teenager exclaims: ''OK! I learned something today!"

Characterizing certain protagonists in the novel, however, proves to be a thornier proposition. Calderon says tentatively: ''C.C. Baker and Eugene are . . . masterful?"

Shah, dubiously: ''Masterful?"

Calderon: ''Pompous?"

They both laugh.

Don Aucoin can be reached at

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