ROCHESTER — As his fingers traced the lines of colored plastic beads, 6-year-old Emmanuel Olivere worked on the subtraction problem in his head.
Tutor Barb Williams, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Greece, reminded him that to subtract, he had to take beads away from the string.
Emmanuel complied, and then counted out the remaining beads with his index finger.
A retired teacher who used to have up to 55 students in her classroom, Williams said she relishes the chance to work with students one-on-one at Notre Dame Learning Center.
The center is looking for more volunteers like Williams to help them meet a spike in demand for math tutors. The center’s approximately 80 volunteers offer free tutoring to students — some who attend Catholic schools and some who attend public schools — who reside in the City of Rochester. All students are responsible for securing their own transportation to and from the center.
During a Nov. 18 open house called "An Hour for Kid Power," the School Sisters of Notre Dame who founded the center in 2004 explained how it operates and told of a recent spike in demand.
"This past week, we’ve gotten a lot of phone calls, and what happened, I think, is that report cards went out," said Sister Lorraine Burns, SSND, the center’s director and retired principal of the former Holy Family School.
Last spring, the center served 54 students, and this summer it served 34. As of Nov. 18, 32 students were enrolled. Usually the spring semester is busier than the fall, Sister Burns said.
"(In January) they get the notice that if they don’t do something, they will not get promoted (to the next grade)," she said.
Due to an increased demand in math tutors at the center this year, Williams switched from reading to math tutoring.
"I thought I could handle first-grade math," said Williams, who has been volunteering at the center for four years.
She said it’s not enough to help students memorize addition and subtraction problems, which is why Emmanuel was learning the concept of subtraction by using large plastic beads.
"It’s important that they understand what they are doing," Williams said.
Sister Burns explained that some math students have difficulty interpreting mathematical word problems because they have trouble reading, while others do not have such basic math skills as addition and subtraction. Others lack one-on-one attention from their teachers.
"If you’ve got 25 children sitting in front of you, it’s difficult to give individualized attention to them," Sister Burns said.
She added that still others lack mentors to motivate them to do their work. Two seventh-grade students have been coming to the center for more than three years, she noted, and although they don’t need the tutoring help as much as before, they have bonded with their male tutors. In both cases, the students do not have fathers at home, she said.
Referrals to the center can come from parents or schools. Sister Burns said after receiving a referral, the center’s staff will call the student’s teacher to discuss the student’s progress and evaluate the student’s abilities with an initial test.
Individualized lesson plans for each student’s tutoring sessions are written by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and the sisters review the plans with volunteers. Sister Burns noted that the center operates on the donations of friends, its annual appeal, and contributions and tithing from a number of Catholic churches.
Some volunteer tutors are senior citizens from Lifespan’s RSVP program, while others are education students from Monroe Community College who choose to tutor at the center to fulfill course requirements.
One of those student tutors is Kim Welday of Fairport, a second-year education major at MCC. Welday, who hopes to become a kindergarten teacher, said the experience has helped her to become conscious of how students learn to read.
"At first, I didn’t know how to teach reading," she recalled.
Welday said she has her pupil learn the alphabet, sound out each letter and put strings of sounds together to form words.
Welday was working with 7-year-old Tehya Bollar of the Cathedral School at Holy Rosary, who was learning to read the story Can Dog Find a Pet? Tehya said her mother was the one who referred her to the center.
"I heard it was really good from my mother," she said.
The center does have a good reputation, attested Sister Mary Smith, SSND, the former principal of St. Boniface School. Sister Smith said as a principal she saw the results of the tutoring firsthand. Now, as a member of the center’s staff, she said she is glad to be able to help further the center’s mission.
"It is just wonderful to listen to the tutors talk with the children," Sister Smith said. "They are very gentle, very kind and very patient."
EDITOR’S NOTE: To become a Notre Dame Learning Center tutor, call the center at 585-254-5110 and ask for Sister Mary Lou. For details, visit www.ndlcenter.org.