Is It Really Surprising That Kids Learn Better When Someone Pays Attention to Them?

In this op-ed, the executive director of 826LA speaks up about what it really takes for low-income students to succeed.

A student and his mentor at 826LA. (Photo c/o 826LA and the Echo Park Travel Mart)

Jan 17, 2013

Imagine walking into a 300-square-foot room filled with 42 teenagers. Last week you assigned these young people to write a two-page essay. Today less than 15 students turn in their papers.

The scene should be familiar to many teachers working in large urban high schools. It was certainly my experience. As a teacher in San Francisco, I worked in a school where half the students were learning English and nearly all of them struggled against violence and poverty. In their homes and in their communities, my students faced more immediate concerns than getting an essay completed for history class.

So what did I do? I found help from 826 Valencia. This local nonprofit organization had just started offering their trained volunteers as helpers in overcrowded classrooms like mine. The volunteers were adults from every walk of life: freelance writers, lawyers, retirees, professional journalists, and Ph.D. candidates.

More: Op-Ed: We Can’t Let the Arts Be Wiped Off the Education Map

Week after week, a dedicated group of volunteers came to my class to help students with writing projects. I used to put my desk in the hallway outside my classroom to work one-on-one with students while the rest of my class descended into chaos. With help from 826 Valencia, I could break up my large classroom into small groups led by caring volunteers. Students read their work to peers in these groups and learned how to give constructive feedback. Not only did students start handing in completed assignments, but they also benefited from the knowledge and experiences of a diverse group of individuals. This was true community building.

Young people need guidance and undivided attention to get their work done, especially in urban centers like Los Angeles.

Now in Los Angeles, I’m connecting trained volunteers to students from the nation’s second largest school district as Executive Director of 826LA, a chapter of the 826 National organization. Young people need guidance and undivided attention to get their work done, especially in urban centers like Los Angeles. For most of the students we work with, reading before bedtime was not part of their upbringing. And for many, practicing their English-language skills in their Spanish-speaking homes is not possible.

Los Angeles has some of the most capable students in America, but we must give them the undivided attention they need to become creative thinkers and strong communicators. The biggest challenge facing students is equal access to information and support. A typical Los Angeles public school has a student-to-teacher ratio of 1:30, and in some schools, a student-to-counselor ratio of 1:500. It’s no wonder so many young people fall behind: they don’t have enough people around them to keep them focused.

At 826LA, we specialize in writing support because writing is one way for students to make sense of the world around them. We do this by providing free after-school and evening tutoring at our centers in Echo Park and Mar Vista; by offering daily field trips to our centers for classrooms that want to learn how to publish a book in under three hours; by hosting evening and weekend workshops on topics ranging from journalism to hip-hop; and by going into local classrooms to support teachers and help students complete college essays, poetry projects, and a variety of other assignments.

As our regular after-school student Lizeth explains: “Thank you for helping me with my homework and with other things, too. I like working with you. I like coming here, and I also like it when you come here, too. I like working with you because I have fun when I work with you and you also make me laugh and I also make you laugh.”

What can you do to help? Sign up to volunteer at 826 in Los Angeles or other cities across the country. We could not serve our students without the dedication of thousands of trained volunteers. Volunteers lead moviemaking workshops, craft compelling headlines with student journalists, help high schoolers ace chemistry tests, and rally behind students as they apply for college. They help students to practice their language skills and to be creative in a safe environment. More importantly, volunteers give students the undivided attention they need to stay focused. For more information, visit

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