Fatih Kurt, who was accepted into the Harvard summer program, tutors his second-grade student in math as part of the Succeed2gether tutoring program at the Montclair Public Library. COURTESY TONY TURNER

Special to Montclair Local

Here come the second-grade Neupane twins, with their dark curly hair and pinkish garb, and still I can’t tell them apart. I name Lozina as Karuna and Karuna as Lozina until they correct me. Today at the library they are chortling over a raucous book, “Princess Potty Time,” with pull tabs for each step of the potty process. “HILARIOUS!” they exclaim, and fall on the floor laughing.

This is Wednesday at Succeed2gether, a mostly free tutoring program that operates four afternoons a week on the third floor of the Montclair Public Library. I call it Twin Day, because the Neupane twins are tutored by the Moed twins, who are students at Montclair High. The fifth-grade Chambers twins are likewise on the Wednesday schedule, tutored by two young women who may as well be twins, as they are close friends and look and sound a lot alike.

Succeed2gether is the nonprofit that created the Montclair Literary Festival, which is just one of Succeed2gether’s programs. We also offer enriching workshops in music and computers, math and writing, and all for free.

A literary festival — this year’s runs from March 15 through 18 — implies a celebration of authors and the written word. A tutoring program, on the other hand, suggests dreary repetition under the stern gaze of an elder. Succeed2gether is different: funny and lively like the Neupane twins; aspirational and democratic. Our currency is goodwill, empathy and a belief in the power of learning.

Inside this grassroots program of 100-plus students and as many volunteer tutors exists a world where culture and ethnicity, age and socio-economics criss-cross in a web of connection. From 3 to 6 p.m., we pair a student from grades K through 12 and from anywhere in Essex County with a volunteer tutor from about age 15 on up. We are academic matchmakers. Each pair meets for at least an hour a week, and the first meeting is often as awkward as a blind date.

“I just don’t know,” said Heidi, a retired math teacher from Livingston, after about her fourth week with her 7th-grade student. He had sat nearly mute, without affect or enthusiasm. “I’m not sure this is working. I wonder if he’d be better off with another tutor.”

She would try one more time, she said. And somehow, not long after, she learned that he loves movies, as she does. She brought from home Rat-a-Tat Cat, a card game of memory that has been endorsed by Mensa. Soon I noticed that the student was talking nonstop. He was happily beating Heidi in cards, calling himself the King. A few months later, he brought in an honor roll certificate signed by his principal. We took pictures and congratulated him.

Now when he leaves, Heidi turns to me, “I just LOOOOVE him.”

Not every story is so dramatic, and yet our results are often grade-changing, confidence-building, attitude-toward-school-improving. The quality of our tutors is high. They are retirees and high school students, college kids and even middle-schoolers, who are “book buddies” who read to our youngest students. Our adults come from finance, publishing, journalism, dentistry and education. Our 14 retired teachers know what they’re doing. One day Sandy, a retired elementary teacher, demonstrates the meaning of the word “shred” by tearing up bits of paper into a heap. Her second-grade student joins the shred-a-thon with glee.

Another tutor, Megan, a professor of education, plays “The Secret Word” with her student, writing each letter of a single word on a separate index card. She hands the cards to her student to arrange and rearrange and ultimately guess the secret word.
The payoff runs both ways. High school students show up looking for community service hours, then get hooked by their students. I think it’s a relief to step away from the college admissions race. And yet, of course, they often land at great colleges. Maybe we’ve helped.

We have only just started tracking the paths of our tutored students, but we hope Fatih Kurt is setting the bar.

He arrived in the U. S. from Turkey last year knowing almost no English. His family settled in Glen Ridge, and he and his younger brother enrolled in Succeed2gether’s summer program. Now Fatih is a “math buddy” to a second-grade student at the library. It happens that my husband has a friend who runs a summer college program for high school students. Send us your qualified students, our friend said.

I thought of Fatih, and Fatih and his mom sent in his application. Fatih got in — to Harvard. His citizenship status doesn’t qualify him for financial aid. Now he and his family have to find $8,600 for seven weeks at Harvard — and probably will not. His mother will spend the money instead on an SAT tutor. “Isn’t that what other people do?” she asks.

Meanwhile, the Neupane twins — who along with their brother, Tenzin, won the January reading contest at the library (their family read 600 books!) — were naturally thrilled about being tutored by twins. “That’s AMAZING!” said one. “That’s HILARIOUS!” said the other, and this week I will learn which one said what.

Montclair journalist Candy J. Cooper is the director of education for Succeed2gether.