Learning Buddies help younger students with reading and math; Program recruits high school, university students to help Grade 2-5 kids


When kids came into the office of Vancouver pediatrician Alisa Lipson, she was able to treat them for almost any malady. Sprains, infections, growing pains could all be dispatched with advice, kind words and the odd prescription.

But there was something she couldn’t fix.

“I would see these kids coming in with learning issues, kind of discouraged. They could come and see me any time because of our health system, but for this, basic treatment wasn’t available.”

Lipson would suggest tutoring, but many families that needed the support most couldn’t afford $60 to $80 an hour for a skilled tutor that could help their children crack the reading code.

“They can start to feel stupid by Grade 2, and once they feel like that it’s hard to achieve anything.”

She shared her concerns with her own daughters, Dena and Samantha.

Dena, a university student, was already tutoring a child in Lipson’s practice; Samantha, a teenager, came up with the idea of doing more. She wanted to bring high school students into schools and the Learning Buddies Network program was born.

Dena’s friend Alison Lee, a UBC medical student, came on board as a co-founder, helping to establish the Learning Buddies Network, which brings young mentors into inner-city schools to tutor children in math and reading.

The program has expanded to 15 schools, with 150 high school and university student tutors offering once-a-week sessions to elementary school children who need intervention.

Leah Wong, a learning resources teacher at Renfrew elementary has seen first-hand the difference the program is making for her students.

Having teens and young adults come into the school to work with the kids in a one-on-one setting makes a huge difference.

“Some of what they need is social and emotional support,” said Wong. “Because it’s young adults, they feel a sense of belonging, a little bit of bonding. They become happier learners, more motivated learners.”

The tutors get training in phonics, phonological awareness and learning fluency.

Learning Buddies Network has two programs: Reading Buddies for grades 2-3 and Math Buddies for grades 3-5.

The growth of the program has been rapid, driven by need.

Each site has 10 to 12 volunteer tutors and 10 to 12 students. As more schools ask for Learning Buddies Network, the challenges of meeting the demand expands.

Telus, the Variety Club and other private sponsors support the program, which recently got charitable status.

“We’re growing so fast, it’s hard to keep up,” said Wong. Wong created a training manual for volunteers and program manager Judith Boxer helps coordinators manage a fleet of 150 volunteer students.

Boxer says the learning goes both ways: “It’s a great opportunity, it’s fun and beneficial for everyone.”

This story appeared in the Vancouver Sun on Dec 24, 2012.