By Cale Davis
I sat down to speak with Arion Vojacek-Sobczak on Monday, March 23rd, 2015. We had met briefly months before and communicated in great part over email. I caught him in the middle of program and truthfully had to wait in line for 30 minutes to speak with him. Three students huddled around the same few pieces of paper, all caught in the calm direction of Arion’s voice.
Today Neighborhood Learning Alliance’s afterschool program, Pittsburgh GLO, was running out of the cafeteria at Science and Technology Academy in Oakland. Program coordinators Barry Johnson and LaTrina Hall managed the space, coolly. Mr. Barry made slow rounds, checking on students. Miss Trina sat at the door with a group of older students and volunteers, alternating between speaking with students and calling parents.
The bulk of students sat in groups along four rows of lunch tables. A low rumble of academic conversation echoed up the gray brick walls and natural light spilled in from the high windows. At 5 p.m., Miss Trina called the students for dinner and Mr Barry ushered them toward the food. The few students by Arion stayed until prompted a second time by Mr. Barry.
Arion began volunteering with Neighborhood Learning Alliance in November of 2014, working toward grad school tutoring requirements for University of Pittsburgh Master of Special Education with Academic Instruction Certificate (MOSAIC) program. He was introduced to program coordinator Miss Trina by a former NLA employee, who was also studying education at the University of Pittsburgh.
Arion specializes in math, and he has developed a reputation with many of the students in the afterschool program. While I was interviewing Arion, he was interrupted several times by a ninth-grade SciTech student, Dewayne.
“Oh, you’re doing an interview?” Dewayne asked, stepping back toward his table, a paper tray of food in his hand. Most students had put their homework away by this point, just ten minutes from dismissal.
Arion turned from the lunch table. “I’m here to help you. This stuff,” he said, motioning at my notebook, “is extra.”
Dewayne smiled and turned to grab his work from the other table.
“You can’t just show up and say you know what you’re doing. You have to prove to [the students] that you really know your stuff,” Arion said.
Dewayne gathered his papers and laptop and and settled beside Arion.
“Like the Pythagorean theorem – you know it.” Arion pointed to Dewayne. “A squared plus B squared equals C squared,” Dewayne replied, smiling and opening his laptop.
Students in the afterschool program range from seventh to 10th grade and most often come to Arion with algebra and geometry homework.
“There’s so much math,” Arion said, “—so many different kinds of math, even here. [Tutoring at SciTech, for me] is often about trying to remember the ‘right’ thing instead of the advanced thing, then explaining it in a way that a high school student will understand.”
“On an average day at SciTech, I show up early to help Miss Trina and Mr. Barry set up and prepare. As students come in I ask them what kind of work they have. Sometimes we’ll get started right away. Generally students will gather by subject area. If they don’t come to me, I hover. You have to let them know that you are here to help, even if they don’t think they need help. You are here for them.”
Arion turned toward Dewayne’s work and mumbled some advice under his breath. Dewayne nodded his head and leaned closer to his laptop.
“[A tutor] can’t be intimidated, even if the students don’t respond at first. If [a tutor] shows [students] that [he] can help them with the material, word will spread,” Arion said. Dewayne confirmed from the side, “Yeah, I brought three or four [students to work with Arion] the other day.”
Arion has volunteered regularly for five months, with nearly 100 hours logged, and plans to continue through the end of the school year. He will begin his grad school program this summer. Arion’s brother, Ty Vojacek-Sobczak, also works with Neighborhood Learning Alliance as a coordinator in the Tech Warrior program.
“Arion is incredible,” program coodinator Mr. Barry said. “The kids love him because he can really help them.” Neighborhood Learning Alliance’s PghGLO afterschool program runs Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, from 2:46-5:30 p.m. at SciTech.