If you have ever lived at or near Kaneko Commons, perhaps you have noticed the fleets of school buses that pass by every weekday morning. These buses carry Salem children, headed to start their days at Bush Elementary School. It may seem that Willamette University and Bush Elementary are two distinct worlds, separated by 14th Street, but for some, the lives of Willamette and Bush students are not so distant.
Bush Elementary, part of the Salem-Keizer Public Schools district, has partnered with Willamette University’s Office of Community Service Learning (CSL) since 2007. That year, Bush reached out to Willamette for assistance tutoring and mentoring elementary students, according to WU’s website. As a result, Tiger Club was formed.
Tiger Club, named after Bush’s school mascot, is an after-school literacy program for first through fifth-grade students. Nico Sacco (‘21) is this semester’s club coordinator.
“Our mission statement is basically to provide supplemental education to at-risk students,” Sacco said. These “at-risk students” are identified and referred to Tiger Club by Bush teachers. The club is free to the elementary school children.
The Oregonian found that, as of the 2016-17 school year, Bush Elementary falls behind statewide averages when it comes to achievement, test scores and attendance rates. WU’s website says 50 percent of Bush students are identified as needing Tiger Club’s “academic intervention.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, Tiger Club members go to Bush for an hour, where they read with students or help them work on their writing and phonetic skills. “This year we started a storybook project to teach them how stories work,” Sacco mentioned.
The Tiger Club owns a book cart, like one you might find along the shelves of a library. Every semester the club uses money, funded by the Hull Grant, to buy books to fill this cart. Sacco said a goal of the club is to continually provide students with new books at their respective reading levels, so they can always have access to new stories and stay excited about reading.
Many of these books are written in Spanish. Sacco said there are four Tiger Club students who only speak Spanish fluently. According to The Oregonian, 50 percent of Bush Elementary students are Hispanic and 51 percent of students are English learners. Sacco mentioned that Tiger Club is looking for bilingual volunteers from the WU community.
Tiger Club’s mission extends beyond literacy. The group strives to instill in students a passion for education of all types. Last week, the Willamette Chemistry Club came to a meeting to give students a chemistry demonstration. This week, students will receive a tour of WU’s campus, which is capped off with a round of popsicles.
But not everything about Tiger Club is so sweet. The group has faced its fair share of challenges, namely when it comes to finances. “We’ve done fundraisers this year to add to our budget,” said Sacco, since the budget the CSL provides isn’t enough to accomplish everything the club wants to do. He added that Tiger Club receive lots of support from the multicultural clubs on campus, including the Asian Coalition for Equality and WU’s CAUSA chapter.
For many, Tiger Club is about more than just reading and writing. By working together so closely and frequently, powerful bonds are developed. the support WU students provide goes beyond academic tutoring, with students offering Tiger Club members personal—and sometimes heavy —information about their home lives.
“What’s really important is we ask our volunteers to come every Tuesday and Thursday because you make really personal connections with these kids,” he said. “You feel a sort of responsibility, as a person who sees these kids everyday, to ask them how their day is going and to care for them and help them through their education.”
Sacco urges students who are willing to fully commit to Tiger Club to join. The club meets from 3:15 – 4:45 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday. New members must undergo a background test before going to a meeting, which takes about two weeks to complete. Interested students can contact Nico Sacco at email@example.com.