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Sac State tutors provide math muscle for high school students during a critical time

Aztrid Meza-Barajas said that making a difference in the lives of students she tutors is part of the satisfaction the work provides. (Photo courtesy of Aztrid Meza-Barajas).

Aztrid Meza-Barajas plans to make teaching a career, so being paid to teach while she is still a student at Sacramento State gives her a taste of professional reward for her work. 

Seeing the Hiram Johnson High School students she mentors make progress, however, is the best part about being part of the University’s new Math Tutoring Buddies Program, Meza-Barajas said.

“It’s always reassuring to hear a student say, ‘I can do the rest of my homework on my own now,’ ” she said. “They are so appreciative of our support.”

Sayonita Ghosh Hajra and Abigail Higgins, both assistant professors in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, launched the program last fall to help high school students who were struggling with their lessons during the coronavirus pandemic. Particularly concerning were students whose families could not afford private tutors.

“Before the pandemic, students could stay after school and get help from their teachers,” Higgins said. “That kind of help is so much harder to access now. We were really motivated to make a difference in any way we could.”

They consulted with David Zeigler, the department chair, who embraced the idea and approached Sac State graduation czar James Dragna with a proposal. Dragna’s office agreed to fund the pilot program.

So far, Math Buddies tutors have worked only with students at Hiram Johnson. With additional funding, however, the University hopes to expand it to other schools.

Higgins and Ghosh Hajra chose Hiram Johnson, in part, because it has a diverse student body with many scholars for whom English is a second language.

Hiram Johnson math teacher Fernando Rodriguez said his school is a perfect fit for the program, “as we are just a few minutes away from Sac State and many of our alumni have gone on to attend” the University. Rodriguez is an alumnus.

“Most importantly, students have learned that they have the right to advocate for themselves and understand that they must speak up and seek out services that our district may not always be able to provide on a consistent basis.”

Sac State tutors, some of whom speak multiple languages, earn $15 an hour for leading virtual sessions in subjects including algebra, trigonometry, geometry and statistics. Six Sac State scholars currently work as tutors, offering services daily from late morning until early evening.

“We are trying to target (high school) students who might want to be civil engineers, but who are perhaps two years behind in math,” Zeigler said. “We want to help them build a foundation, give them the skills to help them achieve their goals.”

The program benefits the tutors and high school students, whose teachers refer them for learning sessions.

High schoolers can enhance their knowledge and grades and perhaps become motivated to pursue college degrees in mathematics, science or engineering, Zeigler said. Sac State students get to practice their math and teaching skills, and build their résumés.

Reviews of the program have been positive.

“Our students have been able to get tutoring outside of class in a time when they need it the most,” Rodriguez said. “Students have been able to get the help they need in languages other than English, as well, which during distance learning has been very difficult” for some.

High schoolers who have participated in the one-on-one sessions said they found them helpful.

“Please continue this program, not just for me but for others,” student Faith Woods said in an audio testimonial for Math Tutoring Buddies. Woods called her tutors “amazing” and “patient,” and said they “found an easier way to explain the math.”

Rodriguez said he has noticed changes in students in the program.

“Students have gained confidence in being able to ask questions during and after class on things they need help with,” he said. “Students who have attended tutoring regularly have shown an improvement in their assessment scores.

“Most importantly, students have learned that they have the right to advocate for themselves and understand that they must speak up and seek out services that our district may not always be able to provide on a consistent basis.”

Rodriguez said students have been “empowered by knowledge and awareness,” calling it “a great thing.”

Meza-Barajas said she gets satisfaction from knowing that her tutoring is making a difference.

“I am constantly told by students that they understand the material so much better once they have gone through a few practice problems with us.

“Also, as a college student, it’s hard to get paid experience” working with younger students, she said, something the program addresses. “This is helping me prepare for when I become a high school teacher myself.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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