As schools across Northern New Mexico start returning to in-person classes, many are working to address challenges that have emerged over the last year of enforced online learning, and volunteer tutors from the Laboratory are stepping up to help.
“With COVID-19, we were seeing a skills deficit developing," says Richard Apodaca, the district principal at Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools, based in Ojo Caliente. "We're a rural district and so despite our best efforts, some students had connectivity issues which meant they couldn't participate fully in online classes."
To help address this deficit, 15 Lab volunteers currently meet with individual students from the fourth to sixth grade at Ojo Caliente Elementary for at least one hour a week to work on math and language arts.
Building a connection
"The teachers feel like they're supported," says Apodaca. "And the students are excited to get to know the people from LANL. Especially after the isolation the pandemic has brought, building a connection is very important."
Married team of Laboratory tutors Denise and Gary Liechty (a mechanical engineer and R&D engineer respectively) are clear that the rewards of tutoring go both ways. “Watching my student catch a concept and smile brighter than the sun is great,” says Denise. “After each experience, I get to see her self-confidence grow. It is an amazing feeling.”
“My education and training are skill sets that I can use to strengthen and help the next generation of our community; my way of paying it forward,” says Gary.
Mercedes Butterworth is the school coordinator for nonprofit Communities in Schools at Carlos F Vigil Middle School in Española. She helps co-ordinate the 10 Laboratory volunteers who are tutoring there, and has also seen a positive impact from the program.
“The tutors have been able to reach students that struggle in the larger virtual classroom, either with focusing, feeling comfortable enough to ask questions, or staying on task,” she says. “Having the tutors here has really helped some students master subjects that they were falling behind in.”
Michael Linch, a criticality safety office at the Laboratory, is a certified public school teacher and he has been volunteering at Carlos Vigil. “Tutoring via the internet is challenging. Concepts that could easily be taught with a whiteboard or document camera can be very difficult to teach using Internet tools,” he says. “But working with fellow math teacher Damon McGinn to help his kids has been the best part of the experience.”
The Laboratory supports its employees in this work by offering paid time off for the time they spend tutoring during the work day. The programs at both schools are set to continue through the end of the school year.
“I really appreciate the opportunity the Laboratory gives to its employees to help in this way,” says Apodaca. “It makes a big difference to Northern New Mexico.”