Seventh-grader Michelle Kenton is not like a lot of her classmates. At Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, a school where many students are good readers, Kenton admits that she gets nervous reading aloud. But she loves math, often besting her peers on tests and assignments.
Hawthorn InvestiGirls, an after-school tutoring program led by Washington University in St. Louis students and supported by the university’s Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, is helping students like her get to the next level in both subjects. On Mondays, tutors provide extra help to struggling readers. And on Tuesdays, they offer enrichment to students who are excelling. Kenton goes both days.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came to Hawthorn — because I wanted more opportunities like these,” she said. “The tutors make learning fun.”
Washington University senior Rachel Harris leads the group of 33 InvestiGirls tutors and works closely with teachers who have identified where each student needs support.
“Sure, homework help is important, but we think there are ways to be even more effective,” said Harris, who is studying education in Arts & Sciences. “By targeting students who are the opposite of the norm, we are making sure students are supported and challenged.”
The strategy is part of Hawthorn’s ongoing effort to bring a rigorous STEM-focused education to women of color — a population that is underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Founded by Mary Danforth Stillman in 2015, Hawthorn is Missouri’s first single-sex charter school and serves girls in middle and high school. Enrollment is open and tuition is free.
“We are constantly asking ourselves: ‘How can we work smarter?’” said Julie Hercules, Hawthorn’s dean of student life and community affairs. “By listening and customizing around the real needs of the students, the tutors are extending the work in the classroom.”
On this day, InvestiGirls programmed an afternoon of enrichment activities with the support of K-12 Connections, while Hawthorn teachers participated in professional development.
K-12 Connections, a joint initiative of the university’s Gephardt Institute, Institute for School Partnership and Office of Government & Community Relations, typically hosts field trips to campus. But that day, six K-12 ambassadors traveled to Hawthorn to engage students in an interactive STEM lesson. The challenge was to design a mission to Mars for $250 million.
Hannah Shanes, a first-year student in Arts & Sciences, talked Kenton’s team through their various options for rockets. Yes, Shanes said, the light-lift rocket is cheap, but can it carry heavy communication systems and scientific equipment?
Kenton’s job was to track the mission’s expenses. When she discovered the team was over budget, the students grudgingly agreed to ditch the infrared camera but keep the life science laboratory. With seconds left to spare, she punched in the final numbers. The group got the job done with $1 million to spare. The girls clapped, and one told Shanes that she will make a good teacher some day.
“Thanks,” Shanes responded. “But I want to be a doctor.”
Harris is proud that InvestiGirls is bringing mentors and role models to Hawthorn. Her experience as a tutor, first for Each One Teach One and now for InvestiGirls, has led her to pursue a career as a middle school teacher.
“Most people can’t imagine teaching a class of middle schoolers, but I’ve come to really love this age,” Harris said. “It’s a time when a lot of kids may have a strained relationship with their parents. Teachers are the ones who can step in and be the figures that students turn to.”