“What they’re trying to do, I told Phoebe that, in Louisiana, that’s how I became the person that graduated from high school,” VAST student-worker Cody Harmon ’19 said. Head Coordinator of the Vassar Afterschool Tutoring Program (VAST) Phoebe Magee ’09 only recently took the role as the head of the Vassar Afterschool Tutoring (VAST) program. For many volunteers, working as tutors and mentors for the under-privledged Poughkeepsie Middle and High School students means getting the students excited enough about learning that they, like Harmon, continue striving for a higher education.
Standing outside the Old Observatory, Magee said, “In middle school, you spend a lot of time figuring out what is normal and what you should be doing. Then you rebel against it by listening to really weird pop punk, or asking people out on dates for no reason, or experimenting with weird Capri pants like I did.”
She was describing the ins and outs of VAST, a mentorship program with the Poughkeepsie Middle School. The program successfully jumped back on its feet last Monday for the semester. Each year a mix of about 45 Vassar volunteers, work-study and fieldwork participants head over to the school every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for an hour and a half.
Once Vassar student volunteers step off the bus, the second step is to pair up with one or two middle school students and begin helping with their daily schoolwork. Magee explains, “As Vassar mentors get to know their students better they can provide some academic mentorship. As a young college educated adult, who works with them afterschool, you can find what their strengths are, do some cheerleading, and encourage them to be excited about school.”
Kayla Fisher ’17, is one of those mentors: “At VAST I serve as an eighth grade head mentor, so in addition to having two students I work with, I also facilitate between Phoebe and the other Vassar mentors. As someone who has been in VAST for three years, I feel comfortable helping the other sixth and seventh grade mentors too.”
When Magee came in as the new coordinator in the Summer of 2013, Fisher said, “She just hit the ground running. From day one she was really well organized, and kind of just had an idea that she wanted to reach out the mentors who had been in the program recently, and get their advice on how to run things. There has been a lot of communication between the mentors and phoebe. The kids really love Phoebe, she is really involved in getting to know them in and outside of VAST.”
The kids are no strangers to Fisher either. Spotted at the mall, she has a tough time making an escape. “Whenever I go to the mall, I swear to goodness, there is like a flock of middle schoolers, like ‘Kayla!’” But, Fisher doesn’t mind her celebrity. The frequent sight of middle schoolers off of their desk-chairs and out and about in the city of Poughkeepsie continues to ignite excitement and warm feelings.
“Education is something you can embody in whatever line of work you go into, and in some ways VAST has helped me see that. You don’t have to be a teacher in a classroom to understand the importance of education.” Fisher might not sit her devotees down at the mall for a session on algebra, but her philosophy on education certainly extends past the classroom.
Both Fisher and Magee have been highly praised for their effort to create an exemplary program inside and out of the Vassar community. As Interim Head of Field Work Nicholaus de Leeuw said, “I can tell you that when I have interactions with the principle at the middle school, Crystal Waterman, and the Super Intendant of the Poughkeepsie schools: they both have made a point of saying what a great thing that program and others are.” Perhaps part of the recent enthusiasm generated by Crystal Waterman and the Super Intendant comes from an easing of tension between Poughkeepsie Middle School administrators and VAST coordinators.
Over the last three years, Fischer has noted an upswing in communication efforts between the two. She notes, “Working with the middle school administrators is actually a lot easier than it used to be. Communication between VAST and the middle school has gotten better over the years. We actually have our own classrooms this year at the middle school. Which means we are able to decorate those spaces. We are beginning to make that space our own, as opposed to something we can just visit.” An improvement in communication has allowed for newfound access to resources previously allocated to different areas. Permanent classrooms improve the program’s roots and provide a space for students to decorate and feel at home.
As Fisher noted, Magee came into her own as coordinator of the program quickly. But for Magee, her efforts were strongly supported by the coordinators, mentors, parents and students before her. “The people before me really just built something really incredible and strong relationships with the school. By the time I got here, people really wanted to be in the program.” Though there is significant interest in the program, Magee still has an active role in recruitment.
VAST focuses on sixth, seventh and eighth graders, but when Magee recruits she focuses on the newest of the batch. “I travel to the Poughkeepsie Middle School over the summer to deliver applications and talk to parents, and meet people who are just coming into this school as sixth graders.” Magee is fortunate enough to boast of the programs free tuition and close mentorship to incoming parents and students.
The next step for Magee is preparing her tutors to go to the Poughkeepsie Middle School. As a former English major here at Vassar, Magee has Vassar students journal about their Middle School experiences: “I like to have people write their thoughts down before they have to share them in a group, especially in the beginning. So, this year people had a chance to jot down their most vivid memory of Middle School and then talk to the person next to them about any commonalities, to come up with ideas that might be developmentally true around that age.” The method is designed to help trigger memories and preface Vassar student’s initial meeting with the middle schoolers.
One major hurtle for Magee every year is the excess of qualified Vassar work-study applicants. “There are definitely more students interested in doing VAST for work-study than I can accept. In total, 43 people applied, and there were 11 spots. If I had a wish list for VAST, more work study spots would be on there.” After the work-study positions are taken, Magee seeks about 30 volunteers for the semester.
“I think what really works for the program is getting really talented, really educated, really hard working Vassar students over there, and asking them to listen to the student they are working with, and see what the student is working with, and see what the student needs, and they figure that out.” Magee stresses building a deep personal relationship with middle schoolers, and fitting the style a scope of education around them.
Fisher, one of these talented students, is excited to begin a new year with the Poughkeepsie Middle School. “I’m really excited to continue to work with the two girls I had worked with last year because they have grown so much intellectually and personally, not so much height, but they are extremely intelligent, extremely driven, and it has been an honor to work with them.” Fisher’s relationship with her mentees has extended over two years.
Magee said of Fisher, “Kayla has a cool role, she is a head mentor in the classroom, and she kind of leads students there in an academic portion.” All students involved in the program work to build and strengthen their relationships with middle schoolers. However, each Vassar mentor will approach their role differently depending on their strengths.
Magee told me that Fisher’s role is academic, but that other students have roles which focus on extracurricular interests. “There are other students who come up with extracurricular activities, like art and music. There were people who led Ukulele lessons and stuff last year. Which is so important. Poughkeepsie Middle School definitely has things like chorus teachers, orchestra and sports, but they don’t have as many afterschool recreations where kids can do stuff in groups. There’s no YMCA anymore here, there’s no open gym space, or park space.”
de Leeuw noted one of the reasons for this limitation in resources is the district’s public status. “They are in receivership, in other words, the state has determined they are a problem district, which allows the state to come in and say, ‘we are putting this person in charge,’” de Leeuw explained.
“Poughkeepsie Middle School and High School, I don’t know about the elementaries, but I know those two schools are the bottom state-wide,” Harmon said. He added, when students only travel there a few times a week, it is hard to actually make a difference. He asked, “Are we doing enough to help them?”
Fischer noted, “I try not to look at Poughkeepsie Middle School as a case study, because that’s not my place at all to go in and look for sociological patterns. But I can’t say I don’t notice certain things. Some of the things I notice come from the students themselves. They are very aware of how their school has been effected by standard testing and the common core.”
Fisher tries to confront this issue directly with the students she mentors. “It’s easy to just answer A, B, C or D on those packets, but I think it is really important for VAST mentors to ask questions that go beyond that because you can’t live like that. They are at a very impressionable age where they need to know that it’s okay to question things, and it’s okay to demand more out of your learning environment and the things that you’re being provided.” Vassar students like Fischer and others who work with VAST continue to encourage the merits and approaches to learning Vassar helps to cultivate.
Fischer added, “The kids are so creative when it comes to deciding what to do for fun. They love Apples to Apples, and they are so in touch with technology. It is incredible to hear middle school students be so in touch with their own ideas, and visions for their futures.” Fischer, and other mentors part of VAST actively encourage students to look at their education from alternative angles, and continue to be a lively and active part of their school environment.
In the end, for Fisher, it’s up to the student to defy expectation and seize their own opportunities. “A lot of the times students can voice their concerns, like, ‘if I go to Poughkeepsie and my school is on advisory does that mean that I’m a bad student? ‘Does that mean that I can’t do well?’ But at the same time, I feel like they are defying all that, especially in the program. I don’t feel like they are letting those labels as being a problem school stifle them, I don’t feel like that’s something they have internalized, and that’s something that I’m grateful for.”
VAST will continue to flesh out its relationship with the Poughkeepsie Middle School and its students over the following years. In the meantime there needs to be a continued group of dedicated students and administrators to maintain relations.
Fisher is now in her junior year and close to graduating. Magee, here for two years already, may leave her post-baccalaureate position shortly. For current students interested in the work VAST does, Magee asks they come find her. “There is always going to be a need from Vassar for students who can do this kind of work. So if there are students who want to help this, and would like to commit to this, I would encourage them to come in and talk to me.”
The most important aspect of the VAST program is the connections the students from both sides of the community form. Magee said, “I think, in some ways it might be creating, maintaining, and sustaining some kind of meaningful connection between the Poughkeepsie community and Vassar.” She went on, “These students coming to campus for things, for resources and for activities, and Vassar students leaving campus to spend time in Poughkeepsie and these schools. So it’s imperfect, but it seems worth continuing to work on.”