By Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal
Near the center of Sonora High School’s main building, a neon sign sits atop a stack of tires. It’s just outside a classroom toward the campus’ west side.
The sign reads “open” and invites students to walk in to a personalized learning environment. Here visitors will find help with homework and assistance from a college-level tutor specializing on a wide range of educational topics.
Welcome to the Garage.
An idea formed by three Sonora faculty members, the Garage is Sonora’s newest tutoring center and it operates for all students between 3-5 p.m., four days per week.
Equipped with two sets of tables in a horseshoe shape, six lab computers and two extremely dedicated tutors, the Garage has been helping students at Sonora since its soft opening in November 2013.
“I’ve always had trouble with math, so being in there helps because they still know it,” said sophomore Arianna Castro, who frequents the room three times per week. “It’s really helpful because I don’t get a lot of help at home. When I get home, there isn’t usually anyone there to help me with any of my homework. Coming here and knowing that someone took time out of their day to help you is great.”
But what makes the Garage even more of an accomplishment is in how it came to be.
The idea, which was formed by faculty members Cory Witt, Howard Medrano and Joe D’Amelia, was to create a tutoring environment where students could get homework done and get the help they needed to understand concepts.
“We saw that many of these kids don’t have the resources at home, like a desk or a computer, or they’re dealing with other distractions and have no means by which to get their homework done,” Witt said. “We wanted to create an environment where students could come in and have the tools necessary to get their homework done.”
The opportunity opened up after last school year, when a teacher retirement vacated a classroom adjacent to Witt’s. Medrano immediately went to the school’s administration to pitch the idea.
Shortly after removing a few panes from the wall, the three discovered what looked like a garage door facing the adjacent quad area. It was at that moment that the room was given its name.
But even with the name and the vision, the room still needed the proper tools in order to operate. This was where D’Amelia came up with an idea inspired by his wife, an elementary school teacher.
At Sonora’s Back to School Night in September, the three posted numerous placards on the whiteboard, each containing an item needed for the Garage in hopes for donations. The Garage needed tables, chairs and other necessary equipment.
Within two hours of presenting their idea to parents, faculty and administration, $1,000 had been donated.
“We sold them the dream,” Witt said. “Every parent that came through, we had board members come through, our superintendent and our principal, they all donated. It gave me a renewed faith in our community.”
One of the more fitting pieces is a standing tool shed, donated by Mike and Veronica Norstrom, which holds writing utensils, paper and other various school items.
In November, the Garage opened for the first time, welcoming a small number of students. Two college students, Danny Silva and Juan Garcia, donated their time as tutors. Both have logged more than 50 hours tutoring on any and all subjects, and Witt said there hasn’t been a day since the opening that neither of them have been in the room.
In mid-March, more than 1,000 hours had been logged in the Garage by students.
“It’s nice to see we’ve created this for the Sonora family,” said Silva, an accounting major. “It’s fun coming in to help out because it’s a different challenge every day. It helps me because it keeps my mind going.”
In addition, Witt also opens up his classroom to create extra space in case other students need to come in and finish homework. On top, students from the Bridge program also come in and tutor when time permits.
“I usually tutor what I know, which is usually math and biology,” said Ricardo Esquivel, a junior. “I also get help with math, and while I’m in class I don’t really understand the notes. But here when they help me out, I understand it more and I get more homework done. It’s helped more than the other tutoring program. Here, I know everyone and it feels more comfortable.”
As word has spread about the Garage and its mission, more faculty members have become involved in supervising the two-hour period. As of now, eight faculty members split shifts supervising from Monday through Thursday.
The room has been especially helpful for student athletes as a way to keep up their grades and maintain their eligibility on their respective teams.
“We go in there for football to keep our GPA up during the season,” said Devonn Scott, a sophomore who visits four days per week. “Usually I go in there to get help with homework to keep my grades up. There’s never a shortage of tutors. I think it helps. Our coaches encourage us to go.”
What has separated the Garage from most other tutoring centers, aside from its decor, is the way Silva and Garcia interact with students and make them feel comfortable.
“This place does not operate without them,” Witt said. “They’re incredible young men. they’re so sacrificial in nature.”
D’Amelia added: “You don’t feel like you’re going to a teacher’s classroom. It feels different. It’s more approachable. For some of them, it feels like their home.”
And while the room has been a success to this point, Witt, Medrano and D’Amelia still have plans to try to make it even better. Next year, the plan is to open the Garage during 0 period, as well as during break so that students have the chance to print out essays before class. The three also hope to add to the decor, as well as make the room more systematic and organized. With the high demand by students – each day a line of students awaits the 3 p.m. opening – talks of expanding the room are sure to follow.
“We want to model it after a college environment,” Medrano said. “We’ve researched color schemes that stimulate learning. A year from now, this room will look a lot different.”
However, for now, the room stands as a way of showing the community’s strong support and value in education.
For Medrano, the Garage, which employs the motto “Everyone and Everything Works,” pays dividends for all involved. The students get the help they need, while Silva and Garcia get to practice their roles as leaders. The faculty get a chance to see a different side to their roles as teachers, while the community will see the benefits as the Garage is used as a tool to “mold students into great citizens,” as expressed by Witt.
“This is a whole community effort,” said Medrano. “The parents and administration put in the money for this and we put in the time to supervise it. Danny and Juan put in the time to tutor and the kids are coming and benefiting from that. All the ingredients are there.”