Northeast Minneapolis school seeing success in tutoring program

Northeast Minneapolis is well known for its neighborhoods rich in culture, history, art studios and fantastic eating venues.

But arguably, its richest treasure is St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School (JPII).

Partnering with several parishes, families and volunteers, JPII is transforming lives — and not just the lives of its students.

“At JPII, our teachers lead in the formation of our students, but get critical support through the Catholic Tutors Corps (CTC),” explained Principal Edgar Alfonzo. “The CTC has become a key resource for our teachers and students. The value of this wonderful program is that it measures not only improvement of the students’ scores, but also their development as productive and caring people. Our students are making significant progress in reading and math, and have developed meaningful friendships with their tutors.”

Richard McGuire founded CTC 14 years ago. He describes it as a grassroots, volunteer effort that has grown over the years with the generous donation of time and talent by many people.

“I have gotten to know, or at least met, everyone who has tutored with us,” he said. “I am convinced there is no shortage of truly good people in this world.”

McGuire said the CTC has received small grants from the parishes of St. Edward in Bloomington, St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis and Pax Christi in Eden Prairie. The funds have been used to fund volunteer coordinators at Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Richfield and now at JPII. Currently, the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence (CSCOE) and St. Joan of Arc are also funding the tutor program at JPII.

“It is very important for a parish to have relationships with other communities,” said Father Kevin Finnegan, the chaplain at JPII.

“In doing so, we are able to expand our hearts and our capacity to love and to give of ourselves.”

The resulting blessings are abundant.

“I like how our teachers and tutors don’t give up trying to teach students. I can always get help when I need it,” said fifth-grader Karlene Spieker.

“The energy and love from all the people coming to help are really making a big difference to these kids — saying, ‘We see you, and you are children of God,’” said JPII tutor Sarah Schumacher.

Teresa Novak, JPII CTC volunteer coordinator added , “Parents of students who do not have tutors assigned are always asking to get their students included in this program. The relationships between the tutors and students are remarkable.”

Third-grade student John Agudo said he likes his tutor.

“He is nice and helps me with math,” he said. “I am thankful for the time he spends at JPII to help me and the other students.”

“Tutoring at JPII has been the most fulfilling volunteer job I have ever had,” said Mary Underwood. “It is one of the true joys of my week. I am struck by the calm, friendly, respectful and happy feeling [I] get walking down the school halls. I think that the best part is I get to see our faith’s virtues in action, from the teachers and administrators to the students and other volunteer tutors.”

Tutor Erna Kostuch added, “It’s always gratifying to work with the students, especially when I see a little girl read something that I know she had trouble with the previous week. I’ve worked with some older students on math concepts and had them thank me for working with them to understand a concept that they had trouble with.”

This time together has a lifelong impact for both students and their tutors.

“I get so much more out of my time as a tutor than the students do,” said Chris Rogers, a 10-year JPII volunteer. “Seeing students graduate from JPII who you tutored in kindergarten is humbling, rewarding and exhilarating. It makes [me] very proud to be a part of a school filled with happy and eager learners.”

Gene and Terry Haak have tutored at JPII for five years. “The teachers are always happy to see us and appreciate our efforts with some of the children who are struggling and need special instruction,” Gene explained.

“Since we are both in our 80s, some of the children consider us surrogate grandparents — we get lots of hellos, smiles and hugs from many of the children from all grades,” Terry said. “It is a joy to tutor these children and certainly an added blessing in our lives.”

The teachers and tutors not only provide academic support, but they are also role models and mentors; they demonstrate enthusiasm for learning and provide encouragement when necessary. The students at JPII are surrounded by people committed to their success.

“I chose to teach at JPII because this Catholic school community values the same things as I value: faith and education,” explained third-grade teacher Shannon Ward. “The amazing people who make up this special community do not stop at the teachers and staff; they include the awesome students and their wonderful families as well. The families from JPII want their students to work hard and learn all that they can. They want their students to grow in their faith and respect their teachers and each other. My hope for my students is that they continue to learn and progress academically, while also growing in their faith,” she continued. I hope to instill a sense of responsibility in my students, not only for learning, but [also] for their faith journey.”

Middle school teacher Jessi Weakly said that in addition to being educators, JPII staff members have the opportunity to be positive adult role models in students’ lives.

“This is a great responsibility, but also a great blessing as Catholic school staff,” she said.

“Everyone at JPII is like family,” said eighth grade student Yuliana Morocho. “The teachers and academics are amazing. The teachers have great planning skills and teaching methods, and the tutors are helpful for kids like me who need extra help sometimes.”

Visit to become a reading or math tutor at one of the following Catholic grade schools:

St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School (Northeast Minneapolis)
Sacred Heart Catholic School (Robbinsdale)
St. Mark’s Catholic School (St. Paul)
St. Helena Catholic School (Minneapolis)
Nativity of Mary School (Bloomington)
Ascension Catholic School (Minneapolis)
Risen Christ Catholic School (Minneapolis)

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