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Showing their peers how it's done

Sometimes, a math teacher can break down a problem, explain it 10 different ways, show every step again and again and still lose a student who’s struggling to understand the concept.

And sometimes another student who has figured it out can turn to the one who’s lost and say something that the teacher didn't, and suddenly it clicks. Ashland High School senior Miriam Schaefer-Sharp has experienced both sides of that magical epiphany — the moment when a gear of the mind slips into its assigned groove and begins cranking again — first as a student at the AHS Student Tutor Center and now as one of 26 student tutors, and she’s happy to give back.

“I wanted experience with helping people in academics,” Schaefer-Sharp said during a 40-minute session in the STC on Thursday. “I don’t want to become a teacher, but I just wanted to help people. So I saw who the tutors were and that was a goal, to become one of them. Because they helped me so much I wanted to kind of recycle that.”

Schaefer-Sharp isn't the only one. According to AHS math teacher Tammy Anderson, who’s been in charge of the STC since it opened about 10 years ago, the center is staffed with anywhere from five to eight student tutors per session, and many of today’s tutors were yesterday’s students.

Becoming a student tutor at AHS is no easy task, and many who apply are turned away. Those who are hired, however, are paid minimum wage (the center is funded in part by the Ashland Schools Foundation, so it’s free to the students). Sabrina Scoggin, 17, a senior at AHS, is also an AP calculus student who’s planning on becoming a doctor, but she didn't make the cut and is Anderson’s first alternate tutor.

Scoggin was one of many students seeking help Thursday, and her presence supports Anderson’s belief that the stereotype about those who seek out tutors — that they’re struggling and need help just to keep their heads above water — simply doesn't apply anymore, at least not at AHS.

“(Scoggin) is a calculus student who aced her last calculus test,” Anderson said. “She’s been coming to the student tutor center since she was a freshman. It’s for kids who want to be academically successful. Our top kids come here because they know this is a place where they can work. They work in small groups, which is a really good thing to do when you’re trying to learn something new — to talk it through with other people.”

Sometimes, says Anderson, the tutors on staff can help a fellow student get back on the right track simply by repeating the same advice that was already given by a teacher, but in kid-speak.

“It’s nice because the kids have been through that curriculum before,” Anderson said, “so it’s helpful because they've seen it and also, sometimes, kids just have a different way of explaining it. …And sometimes it just takes hearing it from a kid. I can tell a kid 10 times, ‘You have to show your work’. But if a student tutor — this happens all the time — says, ‘Dude, where’s your work?’ The student goes, ‘I guess I should show my work.’”

Scoggin says the center has helped her immensely.

“I come usually for math help and I've been in advance math but there are definitely a lot of questions that I have, and a lot of times there are different ways to solve problems so when you come to the student tutor center and you get a different perspective on how to solve a problem it makes tests easier and you’re able to look at problems differently,” said Scoggin, who added that she also prefers the free-of-charge STC to a $40-an-hour tutor. “I’m coming this year because now some of my friends in my calculus class come here. We have AP quizzes that we can work on together and we talk about different ideas and sometimes you don’t see the answer even though it’s obvious, so if you have another student to work with you through it, it becomes clear and that helps with tests.”

The STC is open during eighth period, the last period of the day, on Ashland High’s white days (every other day), and also during what’s dubbed TCB (taking care of business) time from 9:40 a.m. to 10:20 a.m. on white days. During the TCB time the center may only serve about 10 to 15 students, but it's hopping in the afternoon, when upwards of 40 or more students cram into the classroom, squeeze in around desks in small groups and thoroughly rack their brains.

Ashland High principal Michelle Zundel believes that the STC, whose staff has nearly tripled since it first opened, has made a big difference, and she points to the school’s improved dropout rate among freshmen as proof. According to Zundel, 13 freshmen did not earn at least 12 credits during the 2013-14 school year, down from 20 the previous school year.

Schaefer-Sharp, who like Scoggin is an aspiring doctor, knows how helpful a good student tutor can be, but says those on the receiving end aren't the only ones benefiting from the program.

“It’s really satisfying,” she said. “I have a lot of stress in my life because I’m taking a lot of academic classes. If I know that I helped someone it’s really relieving. It just feels really good.”

 Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

Skylar Zundel, 16, left; Samra Diab, 17, senior tutor; Sarah Bestor, 17, senior tutor; Isabel Lowery, 16; and Harper Conner study Algebra II during a tutoring session at Ashland High School on Thursday. Daily Tidings / Jamie Lusch
Ashland High Scholl Juniors Izabela Zagorski, left, and Karen Back, study at a tutoring session on Thursday. Daily Tidings / Jamie Lusch