In an era in which education aids in social mobility, inner-city youths are hampered by the lack of affordable extracurricular assistance. And parents, especially those in Union City and the surrounding area, often face a language barrier.
For the past two years, Union City resident Sabedo Argueta and a dedicated team of volunteers have been striving to change that status quo by offering free tutoring through A.K.A. Education. The program, which stands for “Also known as Education,” meets on weekends at Union City’s public library every Saturday, and is open to students from around the area.
“The program helps me a lot with reading and writing stories,” said Natalie Aragon, a 12-year-old 6th grader. “I’m second honors in my school.”
Nine-year-old Eddie Feuchack said he loves math, but often struggles in school with writing.
“Today’s my first day here, but I’ll come back next Saturday,” he said. “My mom likes it here.”
Argueta says that he first had the idea for the program two years ago, when he was enrolled in a microeconomics course at Hudson County Community College (HCCC).
“Our volunteers have seen first hand the struggles that kids around here can encounter.” – Jessica Munoz
Argueta said that those disparities exist especially in the Latino community, where language barriers pose major problems for students and parents in terms of the student’s ability to succeed academically. Working one on one or even one on two with another student for a few hours each week can make a huge difference.
“We’ve had kids come in who have been held back, are consistently falling below where they should be, and within a few weeks we see major improvements,” he said. “We’ve had a few kids who have been held back that made the honor roll the next year.”
Establishing lasting skills
After starting the program with fellow Union City resident Jessica Munoz and North Bergen native Daniel Calderon, Argueta began searching for volunteers to tutor at educational institutions throughout the area. Argueta, who at the time was studying at Rutgers University-Newark, recruited there, while Munoz and Calderon spread the word at HCCC.
By word of mouth, news of the program reached St. Peter’s University and New Jersey City University (NJCU), and now it boasts a handful of volunteers, most of whom are both local and bilingual.
“A lot of our volunteers have gone through the system here, so they’ve seen first hand the struggles that kids around here can encounter,” said Munoz, who emigrated to the United States from Colombia with her parents and two sisters. “There’s a balance between languages that they have to master, and it’s hard, especially when parents aren’t able to help.”
Argueta said that the program’s goals are twofold; not only do volunteers help students with homework and projects, they also attempt to instill them with confidence.
“The younger kids are really at the age where they are developing the skills to believe in themselves, and if they’re having trouble in school, it can become problematic because they think it has to do with their intelligence levels,” he said, “but it really has more to do with a lack of opportunity.”
Calderon said that nearly every student who has attended the program for a substantial period has improved in school. The Martinez brothers are one such success story. Adolfo, 6, and Eduardo, 9, were both struggling in school until their mother, Beatrice Tapaz, heard about the program and brought them to the library one Saturday. Two years and many Saturdays later, Eduardo made his school’s honor roll.
“It’s an excellent program, not only for the kids to help them in school, but also for me so they can help me,” said Tapaz in Spanish. “They’re excelling in class now.”
The program does not discriminate against parents, either. Many who are not native English speakers choose to sit by and observe their child’s tutoring with hopes of picking up some tips for themselves.
“There’s a misconception with the parents of inner city children that they don’t care,” said Argueta. “We’ve seen the opposite. It’s just not true.”
They are also looking for more volunteers willing to give their time on both weekends and weekdays.
“It’s really rewarding and it’s a great way to give back to the community,” said Calderon.
Those interested can email Argueta at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the organization’s website at akaeducation.org.