PEABODY — For the past four weeks, Nick Blaisdell and an army of volunteers have been tutoring hundreds of Peabody kids on English, math, science and other subjects — all free of charge. Blaisdell, 20, just finished his second year of the summer tutoring program Thursday, injecting a bit of fun into the science lessons. He and a few middle school students and their tutors launched a homemade plastic bottle rocket in the parking lot behind the new Higgins Middle School, where classes have been held Monday through Thursday since mid-July. The Peabody Volunteer Tutoring Organization has seen all caliber of students, from high school “overachievers” to kids who are truly struggling in some core subjects, Blaisdell said. Most of their pupils this summer returned from last year. On Thursday, he explained how air pressure applied to the water inside the plastic 2-liter bottle would react to force the rocket up through a large tube the students decorated in class. The pressure came from a bicycle pump. “I’m not sure how it’s going to fly,” he told the small group, noting the fins attached to the bottle on the previous day’s test launch had been removed.
The PVTO has been a big success, he said. The first year he wasn’t sure how many kids would sign up — that number quickly exceeded 180 with students in grades 1-12 coming from Peabody, Salem, Lynn and other nearby communities. This year, it’s closer to 250, and only Peabody kids. Heading into last summer, Blaisdell said, he was trying to get some practical education experience — he wants to become a teacher — but was only finding summer jobs for camp counseling back home. So he picked up the phone one night to call Devon Forsythe — they’ve been friends since eighth grade and graduated from Peabody High in 2015.
“I called Devon and said, ‘Let’s create this program,’” recalled Blaisdell, who will be a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall and is studying English literature and philosophy. He plans to get his master’s degree in education.
“This ties into our larger view of education,” he said. “Education should be free.” Forsythe, 20, a biomedical engineering student at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, said he’s been teaching mainly high school groups in science and math, and a little bit of English. He doesn’t plan to become a teacher, but has enjoyed helping out. Blaisdell added they knew how expensive it often is for parents to hire private tutors — the ones that truly need help are often the ones who can least afford it.
They based the coursework around the state’s curriculum frameworks, he said. They’re not trying to teach new concepts, but rather offer remedial instruction to help students with grade level expectations. The format, especially for elementary grades, is groups of 60 kids in four classes a day Monday through Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Each class is 80 minutes. The middle school and high school students also had class Thursday. Just as the number of students has grown, so too has the team of volunteers — from 19 to 65. That was mainly from Peabody High students looking to help out and earn community service hours, Blaisdell said. He’s also offered to give them reference letters. “Last year was very stretched for tutors,” he said, laughing. “I was mainly persuading friends to (help out).” While greater awareness of the program and the offer of service hours did draw in many new tutors, he still went out recruiting. That’s how Andeemae Sims got involved. “I just love the experience of teaching and helping others,” said Sims, who will be a senior at Peabody High in the fall. She first met Blaisdell when she was a freshman and the two stayed in touch. He approached her a couple of months ago at her school band concert. “Hey, I need some tutors in the summer, would you like to join?” he asked her. Over the summer, Sims tutored fifth- and sixth-graders, who were paired together, and then seventh- and eighth-graders, covering English, math and science. She said 12 to 20 tutors would work with each class, at times one on one with students, but usually in small circles. “I would love to do this again. It was so much fun,” she said Thursday. Sims also doesn’t plan on becoming a teacher — she wants to be a pharmacist and has her sights set on the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Boston.“But I would love to do (this) as maybe a side job in the future,” she said.Last summer the PVTO met at the Peabody Institute Library, either in the teen room, an upstairs conference area or any other spot the library could squeeze a class into, Blaisdell said. He also paid for the supplies out of his own pocket. But over the winter, he reached out to Superintendent Herb Levine asking if there might be space available in one of the schools. Levine offered up the new middle school. Blaisdell and his team arrived later at the school to find boxes of supplies waiting for them. Blaisdell plans to brief the School Committee again in the coming weeks on how this summer’s program went. He and Forsythe also said they change some things up for next year and even add a creativity block — perhaps art or music.
By John Castelluccio firstname.lastname@example.org