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 Making a Connection for Kids, Future Teachers

Tutor 2 - website.jpgTutor Connection program supervisor Michelle Bailow with a few of her dedicated Cal State San Marcos tutors, from left, Brian Kutzner, Riane Moser, and Daren Gallagher.

Michelle Bailow is always on the move, and her phone never stops buzzing. As the San Diego County Office of Education’s Tutor Connection program supervisor, Bailow at any given time has nearly 250 college students and just as many children in foster care relying on her.

Sounds exhausting, right? Bailow wouldn’t have it any other way because she knows the work is benefiting future teachers and the county’s most vulnerable students.

Tutor Connection is a community-based program that pairs university students with youth in San Diego County foster care for free, one-on-one tutoring. The program is a service learning component of some sections of an upper-division education class at Cal State San Marcos, whose students make up the majority of the tutors. About four dozen SDSU students participate as well. Students must complete 20 hours of tutoring in the semester.

May is National Foster Care Month, and the San Diego County Board of Education passed a resolution in support of the designation. Bailow's work was recently recognized by Cal State San Marcos' Office of Service Learning at its annual Service Learning Celebration. She was presented with a new honor, Visionary Leadership in Service Learning. In 2015, SDCOE was named Outstanding Community Partner for Tutor Connection.

Tutor Connection was created in 2002 by Michelle Lustig, SDCOE’s director of Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program and Homeless Education Services, when she worked at Casey Family Programs. The goals of the program are twofold: to ensure that all students in foster care have the educational support they need to succeed in school, and to educate future teachers on the needs of such vulnerable students.

“Tutor Connection is the greatest program I have had the honor to create,” Lustig said. “It feels like one of my children who then went off to college and under Michelle Bailow's guidance became even greater than I had hoped. Michelle took an amazing program and made it better. She pours her heart and soul into every semester. She never loses her enthusiasm and her passion is contagious. The impact of this work will be felt indefinitely.”

Bailow has managed the program for about 10 years, and her tutors say she’s the glue holding it all together. Taking referrals from social workers, schools, and SDCOE educational liaisons. Coordinating schedules. Nudging new tutors to get complete the fingerprinting and background check process. Lecturing in numerous sections of Education 364: Diversity, Ethnicity, and Schooling, teaching tutors about the child welfare system.

“Michelle Bailow was the hallmark of that class,” said senior Riane Moser, a Cal State San Marcos history student and future teacher who took the course last fall. “She is the premiere resource.”

Junior Daren Gallagher, a kinesiology student, said Bailow made herself available 24/7 for guidance. “She’s always available to calm nerves and steer you in the right direction.”

Added fellow kinesiology student Brian Kutzner: “She put so much work into coordinating this experience for us.”

The tutors all said that volunteering with Tutor Connection has been meaningful work, as they gained valuable insight into a world they knew nothing about. And that’s the point, Bailow said. Education professors and child welfare advocates want future teachers to know what a vulnerable student like a child in foster care is going through.

“The class and Tutor Connection benefits everybody, but it’s really geared toward future teachers because they need to have that awareness of the child welfare system,” Bailow said.

The tutors say all college students can benefit from the program. Gallagher and Kutzner aren’t planning to become teachers, but Education 364 and the Tutor Connection have left a lasting impact.

“Tutor Connection has been the highlight of my college experience, hands down,” said Gallagher, who continues to tutor the same child in foster care even though he completed the course last semester. “You don’t get that experience in the classroom. It should be mandatory for every student.”

Added Kutzner: “I had no idea what we signed up for. It’s nice to feel you’re giving back. It’s by far the most meaningful part of my college experience.”

Bailow is encouraged by the enthusiasm shown semester after semester by college students.

“They want to make a difference in the lives of these children,” she said. “And showing up regularly and consistently makes a difference.”

Bailow has to sell the program to some education professors who may be reluctant to incorporate Tutor Connection into their Education 364 sections. Professor John Halcon is not one of them, however. Halcon has been on board with Tutor Connection since the start, pushing enrollment of his classes to 50 in order to get more tutors for children in foster care.

Since the inception of Tutor Connection, more than 2,300 university students have provided life-changing assistance to 3,000 students in foster care.

Bailow - website.jpgMichelle Bailow with her Service Learning award, and student Stephanie Metzler and Professor John Halcon.