Golden Opportunity, a nonprofit organization that provides tutoring to low-income students in the Ithaca City School District, hit its 15-year anniversary this fall, and those involved said it’s grown into an invaluable asset for kids throughout the county.
Marne Honigbaum, executive director of Golden Opportunity, or GO, said GO provides free, one-on-one tutoring for underprivileged students within ICSD, but the goal of the organization goes beyond that.
“The purpose of Golden Opportunity is to continue to provide quality academic support and mentorship to students in grades 2-8 and to continue to increase our student outreach,” she said. “The greater purpose is to create educational equity in the ICSD community.”
That equity is what many within the program refer to as serving the “between-the-cracks” kids – the students that wouldn’t otherwise get the help they need in school. Phyllis Smith-Hansen, a retired Lansing teacher and Caroline GO tutor, said she especially enjoys that aspect of GO because she remembers her experience as a teacher and not being able to help everyone.
“They’re like a plant that hasn’t been watered,” she said. “As soon as you begin working with one of these children, they bloom. … And after 35 years of overlooking kids like that way too often because I was meeting the needs of the most dramatically needful child, I am deeply satisfied to be working with the between-the-cracks kids.”
There are over 50 tutors in the program right now, and like Smith-Hansen, they are primarily retired ICSD teachers. This, Honigbaum said, makes them exceptionally qualified to tutor students who need them most.
“They bring their knowledge of the curriculum and 25 years of classroom experience to the students they serve,” she said. “GO tutors provide consistency and help students build executive functioning skills – they teach a love of learning.”
GO tutor Karen Griffin was a classroom teacher for 37 years in Ithaca and has been a tutor for three years now. She said she enjoys the freedom GO provides her to use the interests of her tutees to teach academic lessons.
“I get to ask kids what they’re really interested in, and then, we get to go with that instead of having to be restrained by what you have to teach at certain grade levels,” Griffin said. “I can focus on the skills that they need, but we can always work on something that’s interesting.”
The tutors aren’t just tutors, Honigbaum said; they’re mentors, taking their tutees to events like basketball games, talking about their lives and interests and being a supporting resource for everyone in the family. Smith-Hansen said forming this family connection is just as important as the tutoring sessions themselves.
“We really care … a lot about building a relationship with the families, and this is why we pick our kids up young,” she said. “So, by middle school, when things are getting really tough, we’re connected already.”
The picture of GO as it exists today is significantly different from it when it started. Founder Marty Kaminsky started teaching in 1979 at what is now Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in Ithaca. Throughout his experience, he continuously saw that there were some of his students that struggled more than others, especially in the low-income brackets.
“It always disturbed me that low-income kids had a more difficult time succeeding for a wide variety of reasons,” Kaminsky said.
So, as he got toward his retirement, he decided to do something about it. He went to the principals of two schools that he had taught at – BJM and Cayuga Heights – and asked them if he could use some money to provide after-school tutoring to two students at each of their schools for one year.
“We tried that for a year, and at the end of that year, I met with those two principals, and they told me … that the one-on-one tutoring had made a significant difference in the lives of those four children,” Kaminsky said.
After that, he put together a board of directors and raised money to grow the program into Golden Opportunity.
“I wanted to do more to help low-income students succeed, so with that in mind, I started Golden Opportunity in 2005 using a small amount of money that I inherited when my father passed away,” he said. “It got started with a desire to help low-income students in Ithaca to have a better opportunity, better chance to succeed.”
Now, GO serves close to 75 ISCD students, and the hope is to increase services and resources to grow that number in years to come, Honigbaum said.
“I think it’ll last forever,” she said. “I believe the organization can sustain its mission. We’re not trying to grow exponentially, just incrementally.”
Part of the reason it’s lasted so long, in addition to serving a clear need, is simply because of the dedication of the tutors in the program, Honigbaum said.
“I have enjoyed meeting and getting to know all of our GO tutors,” she said. “They are wonderful and caring people who I admire very much. The love and support they provide their students is inspiring.”
And after speaking to those tutors, it’s clear they love what they do.
GO tutor Sue Eslinger, a previous kindergarten teacher at Caroline Elementary, said she helped to bring Caroline into the program eight years ago because she believes in its mission. She enjoys helping kids learn in a unique way, which is why she’s stuck with it so long.
“I love the enthusiasm of the kid, and when the lightbulb goes on, that’s just really exciting, and I can relate that to tutoring as well,” she said. “When all of a sudden, the light goes on and they go, ‘Ah, I get it!’, that’s a really neat thing.”
Kaminsky, now a tutor himself, said he loves being a part of GO for a similar reason.
“What I probably enjoy most is working one-on-one with kids,” he said. “It’s what got me into teaching in the first place … watching the joy in a child’s eyes as he or she learns something, understands something that they didn’t understand the first time through.”
Kaminsky said he couldn’t be happier with what GO has become, and he is continuously delighted by the positive feedback they receive from tutees and parents.
“A lot of lives have been changed in a very positive direction,” he said. “It’s taken directions I never would’ve envisioned, and I couldn’t be more delighted to watch the growth and direction it’s taken.”
GO is funded through individual donations, community foundations and federal grants, but GO is always looking for more income sources to continue to compensate the tutors and expand the program, Honigbaum said.
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