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NASD pitched tutoring program; Memphis businessman details success method

Charlie McVean, founder of Peer Power, talks to the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees about bringing his tutoring program into Natchez public schools Wednesday. Peer Power takes high-performing high school and college students and pays them to tutor younger public school students. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Charlie McVean, founder of Peer Power, talks to the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees about bringing his tutoring program into Natchez public schools Wednesday. Peer Power takes high-performing high school and college students and pays them to tutor younger public school students. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ If life is a competitive sport, a Memphis businessman and his team of educators want Natchez children to win.

On Wednesday, Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustee members and city leaders met with Charlie McVean, who started a peer-tutoring program nearly a decade ago at East High School in Memphis and has since expanded to other schools in Tennessee and Mississippi.

McVean described the program as a way to recruit high-performing high school and college students to tutor younger public school students in a variety of subjects.

The program, McVean said, helps improve the students’ standardized test scores, college and job readiness, but also provides a support system for those who might not have anyone else in their lives.

The idea for the program came after McVean saw a great need for improvement at East High School, his alma mater, which was struggling at the time.

Peer Power representatives talk to the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees about bringing their tutoring program into Natchez public schools Wednesday. Peer Power takes high performing high school and college students and pays them to tutor younger public school students. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Peer Power representatives talk to the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees about bringing their tutoring program into Natchez public schools Wednesday. Peer Power takes high performing high school and college students and pays them to tutor younger public school students. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

“I was eating at a restaurant and this very nice young lady waited on my table, so I asked her where she went to school and she told me she was a senior at East High School and planned on going to college in California before going to medical school,” McVean said. “I picked her brain for about 15 minutes, and I found a wadded up $10 bill that I was going to give to her as a tip.

“Then I thought, what would happen if we gathered up more of these kinds of kids and paid them wages equivalent to fast food places to tutor others?”

McVean said he paired that idea with the concept of the classic one-room schoolhouses that his mother taught at as an educator in a small Missouri town.

“The one-room schoolhouse is a wonderful process where the better, older kids help teach the younger kids, and it’s so much more than academics,” McVean said. “The kids qualified to teach others the ABCs are qualified to teach intangible values that, at the end of the day, can only be learned by a family unit, and that’s what you’re creating.”

Top students in underperforming high schools are recruited and interviewed for positions as tutors in the program, for which they earn $10 an hour.

Four tutors lead a team of 12 students, who are supervised by a teacher from the school.

Bill Sehnert, Peer Power executive director, said the program has hired 1,000 tutors who have assisted nearly 10,000 students since the program’s creation.

When Natchez school board members asked how the program operates at each school, East High School teacher and Peer Power supporter Meah King told the board about “eighth period.”

During the first few years of the program, King said the tutors and teachers involved realized some students wouldn’t participate if they knew other extracurricular events were going on at the same time.

“So for that time frame, everybody is in eighth period and nobody can do anything as far as clubs, sports, nothing,” King said. “Those who choose not to, they go home, but everyone else stays.”

King said participation in the hour-long program grew steadily after coaches and other club organizers simply planned their events after the release of the eighth period.

School board member Cynthia Smith asked the Peer Power members how exactly the program is funded.

Sehnert said the first few years were funded by McVean’s generous donations, but that over time the school districts were able to find community and business partners to fund the program.

Board member Thelma Newsome said that might be difficult in Natchez.

“The support is very limited for public schools here,” Newsome said. “I would love to see us take this approach, because I know we have the personnel and students for it.”

Board member Benny Wright asked Superintendent Frederick Hill what he thought of the program and the feasibility of implementing it into the district.

Hill traveled to Memphis with other school and city leaders in April to visit with McVean and witness the Peer Power program at East High School in person.

Hill said what he saw during his trip was the reason McVean was in Natchez Wednesday.

“It’s very doable, and if I thought otherwise, I wouldn’t have had them come here,” Hill said. “It’s just a matter of putting a plan together, but we can definitely make it work.”

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown helped organize the original trip to Memphis after talking to McVean during a meeting the two attended regarding the Mississippi River nearly a year ago.

Brown said at the time McVean was interested in creating and possibly funding a similar program in Natchez.

McVean said Wednesday after the meeting he thought Natchez was the perfect location for Peer Power, but funding would likely have to be established through the district, community and business leaders.

“We’re stretched pretty thin right now,” McVean said. “But I think Natchez is an ideal size community for our program, and we would offer them any support and help to get funding established.”