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Shayla Gutierrez Torres

3 Oct 2023 6:22 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Shayla Gutierrez Torres, a student at Georgia State University aspiring to become an elementary school teacher, faced an unexpected obstacle in her pursuit: limited transportation options. Fortunately, fate intervened when she discovered the Sewa AmeriCorps program through Georgia State University's job placement website, Handshake. The program's virtual format proved to be an ideal solution for Shayla, removing the transportation barrier. With in-person interaction required only one day a week on Saturdays, Shayla could attend the program with the support of her sister. On weekdays, she joined her peers virtually, leveraging online technology tools, fully prepared to make a positive impact in her chosen field.

The Sewa AmeriCorps program has been making a significant impact in the Atlanta community by providing free tutoring and support to students. This program, a partnership between Sewa International and AmeriCorps, started three years ago in Houston and later expanded to Atlanta. Its primary objective is to assist elementary school children in improving their academic skills and bridging educational gaps. As a result, the Sewa AmeriCorps program has addressed educational disparities and offered valuable support to underprivileged students in Atlanta. With the collaboration of dedicated volunteers, AmeriCorps funding, and the leadership of program director Satish Damle, this program has significantly impacted the lives of numerous young learners.

Sewa International is a non-profit organization with expertise in disaster relief, rehabilitation, and a focus on family services, child welfare, women's empowerment, health, and education. In addition to its commendable work in the United States, the organization has undertaken numerous development projects in several countries. Guided by its vision of a harmonious world free from suffering, Sewa International seeks to serve humanity, aid local communities, implement transformative projects, and mobilize partners, donors, and volunteers to create a positive impact through innovative approaches. The organization's volunteers have played critical roles in assisting FEMA during the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, evacuating thousands of students from Ukraine at the onset of the war, distributing thousands of Oxygen concentrators during the peak of the Delta wave, and providing food rations in Pakistan and Kenya to alleviate food shortages.

The Sewa AmeriCorps program holds a special place in Shayla's heart as she finds immense fulfillment in making a positive impact on the lives of young children. Having grown up just above the poverty line, she intimately understands the challenges faced by students without proper support in navigating elementary school. Shayla vividly recalls the difficulties she encountered, with language barriers hindering her parents' ability to assist her with schoolwork, resulting in grades ranging from 50 to 60%. However, as a tutor with the Sewa AmeriCorps program, Shayla witnessed firsthand the remarkable transformations in students' academic achievements. The immeasurable joy she experiences when students receive A's and B's on their assignments and tests serves as a testament to the program's effectiveness in bridging the educational gaps faced by many students.

Shayla's involvement with Sewa AmeriCorps is part of a larger narrative about equal access to quality K-12 education in the United States. The persistent achievement gap among student populations, particularly along racial and socioeconomic lines, underscores the need for intervention. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from 2019 reveals significant disparities in reading and math proficiency between White students and their Black and Hispanic peers. Moreover, funding discrepancies persist, with low-income districts often receiving fewer resources compared to wealthier districts. According to the Education Trust, high-poverty districts receive approximately $1,000 less per student in state and local funding than low-poverty districts. 

Additionally, a shortage of qualified teachers, particularly in low-income communities and subjects like math and science, poses a challenge. The U.S. Department of Education reports that schools serving predominantly low-income students experience double the rate of teacher turnover compared to schools serving higher-income students. Segregation within schools remains a concern, as highlighted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2016, with an increase in K-12 public schools having high-poverty and mostly Black or Hispanic student populations. Many students lack adequate support at home and encounter language barriers that impede their academic progress. These systemic challenges urgently call for programs like Sewa AmeriCorps, which strive to level the playing field and provide access to quality education. Addressing these policy issues, Sewa AmeriCorps offers vital educational support to students who may otherwise fall through the cracks. With funding provided by Sewa International (24%) and AmeriCorps (76%), this program serves as a model for a public/nonprofit partnership that can effectively tackle these issues at the grassroots level.

The Sewa AmeriCorps program operates through three distinct roles: volunteers, members, and staff. The volunteers are high school students enrolled in the Sewa Lead (Leadership Development through Community Engagement) program, while the members are paid tutors supported by AmeriCorps funding. Overseeing the program's operations is Satish Damle, the dedicated program director. At present, the program comprises ten tutors and two community liaisons who play a vital role in engaging with the primarily Spanish-speaking Latino community. These liaisons work closely with parents to encourage their children's active participation in the program. One such community liaison is Angel Ledesma, a college senior who joined the program with a referral from a friend. Angel perceives this opportunity not only as a way to financially support his college education but also as a chance to serve his community and bring about positive change. His responsibilities include daily communication with parents, ensuring their children attend the program's Zoom sessions, and coordinating Saturday in-person activities held at the Sienna Ridge and Villa De Las Colinas Two apartments.

 The Sewa AmeriCorps program follows a well-structured schedule to provide comprehensive support to students. Virtual tutoring sessions are held from Monday to Thursday, while in-person gatherings take place every Saturday. The program caters to different age groups, with a focused approach for each. The first session, from 4:00 to 5:30 in the evening, benefits younger students in grades 1 to 3, primarily focusing on providing help with daily homework assignments, reading, and math. The second session, from 5:30 to 7:00 in the evening, is tailored for older students in grades 4 to 8, with an emphasis on science and math-related subjects.

These sessions offer valuable assistance in various academic areas, including homework help, exam preparation, and targeted subject coaching. To ensure high engagement and attendance program incorporates elements of fun and social interaction, with activities such as Blooket games becoming a favorite among the students. The virtual format, developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, has proven to be successful and efficient. It not only provides flexibility for student participation but also eliminates the burden of daily transportation, enabling parents to effectively support their children's education.

The program's commitment to equal opportunities is evident through initiatives like providing Chromebooks to students who lack access to laptops. By ensuring access to necessary resources, the Sewa AmeriCorps program strives to create a level playing field for all students. These efforts contribute to the program's success in bridging educational gaps and empowering students to achieve academic success.

While attendance is more consistent among younger students who benefit not only from academic support but also from the social outlet provided by the program, older students may join sporadically, seeking assistance only when they encounter challenging topics. Despite these differences in attendance patterns, both groups benefit from the dedicated tutors and the interactive nature of the sessions. Vinita Soni, a resident of Tucker, shared her son Divyan's experience, who attends Henderson Mill Elementary School. Divyan's teachers recommended the Sewa AmeriCorps program to Vinita, and he has embraced it wholeheartedly. Not only does he benefit from the tutoring, but he also finds it a valuable social outlet and eagerly awaits each Zoom call, often logging in 30 minutes early to ensure he doesn't miss out on any action.

The Sewa program has established strong partnerships with local schools, including Woodward Elementary, John Lewis Elementary, and Montclair Elementary. These schools recognize the valuable support provided by Sewa and refer students to the program. What distinguishes Sewa is its commitment to offering services free of charge to students, alleviating the financial burden of private tutoring. Considering that private tutoring can cost up to $60 per hour for an individual session, students in the Sewa program receive the equivalent of $360 worth of free tutoring per week, especially in higher-level classes where sessions may become one-on-one based on attendance.

The dedication and commitment of Sewa AmeriCorps tutors and volunteers go above and beyond to ensure students receive the necessary assistance to thrive academically. Their unwavering commitment contributes to the program's success in supporting students and unlocking their full potential. By offering free tutoring and personalized attention, Sewa plays a vital role in empowering students who would otherwise face significant financial barriers to accessing such educational support. Rosalind Arnold and Cheryl Reeves, both passionate and devoted tutors in the Sewa AmeriCorps program, have personally witnessed the positive impact it has on students. Rosalind, a dedicated AmeriCorps member for two years and a former member of the non-profit organization Scholarship Academy, shared an inspiring story about a student who initially felt overwhelmed by a 30-page packet assigned during spring break. Through the tutoring provided by Sewa, the student gained confidence and completed the work, highlighting the program's ability to empower students and help them overcome challenges.

Sewa AmeriCorps extends beyond academic support and places a strong emphasis on holistic development. For older students in fifth grade, the program initiates discussions about college and the financial implications associated with higher education. These conversations are particularly impactful for families who have never had the opportunity to pursue higher education in the United States, as they open up new possibilities and aspirations. By addressing not only academic needs but also providing valuable information and guidance on higher education, Sewa plays a crucial role in shaping students' futures. The experiences of tutors like Rosalind and Cheryl exemplify the dedication and commitment of the program's tutors, who strive to make a significant difference in the lives of the students they serve. Through their involvement in Sewa AmeriCorps, they have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of education and the tremendous impact a supportive community can have on students' lives.

Satish Damle, the staff coordinator and program director, remains unwavering in his dedication to the success of the program, despite the challenges involved in its implementation and execution. After retiring from a long career in Information Technology, Damle was approached by Sewa to help run the program in Atlanta. Adhering to AmeriCorps' compliance rules and regulations requires significant administrative effort and a steep learning curve, but Damle embraces these responsibilities wholeheartedly. Quarterly reports and regular meetings with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs help ensure the program's adherence to grant requirements, further reinforcing its commitment to transparency and accountability.

Initially, 76% of the program's expenses are covered by AmeriCorps funding, with Sewa gradually taking on a greater share in the future. This sustainable funding model ensures the program's longevity and continued impact. However, maintaining consistent student attendance and securing parental commitment remains an ongoing challenge. Some parents are unaware of the program's benefits, while others face logistical challenges in accessing it. To address these obstacles, the program has proactively engaged in community outreach activities, such as distributing school supplies and providing comprehensive information about the program to increase enrollment and awareness.

Despite the complexities involved, Damle and the entire program team remain resolute in their mission to provide valuable educational support to students in need. Their perseverance, coupled with strategic community engagement efforts, exemplifies their commitment to overcoming challenges and making a positive difference in the lives of the students they serve.

Sewa has exciting plans to enhance its offerings with a free summer camp, to be held at Chamblee Police Station and Keswick Park Chamblee. The camp will be available from May 30th to the end of July, running from Monday to Thursday, between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm. It aims to provide a valuable experience for students in grades 1 to 8, offering a range of enriching activities and free meals throughout the day. Thanks to a partnership with Meals Plus and Bold Ministries, students will receive complimentary breakfast and lunch, ensuring they are nourished and energized for their camp activities.

To ensure widespread awareness and enrollment, efforts are underway to promote the camp within local apartment communities along Buford Highway. By targeting these communities, Sewa aims to reach a diverse range of students and provide them with access to an engaging and educational summer camp experience. The camp will be supported by dedicated Volunteers and AmeriCorps members who will work diligently to ensure a stimulating environment and foster meaningful learning opportunities for all participants.

The success of the Atlanta model, which combines virtual tutoring sessions with in-person interactions on Saturdays, has laid a strong foundation for the expansion of the program to other cities. By leveraging the proven effectiveness of this approach, Sewa International aims to replicate its impact and extend its reach to empower students in additional communities. Through these initiatives, Sewa continues to demonstrate its commitment to providing comprehensive educational support and fostering the growth and development of young learners.

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