By PK DAUER
Irving Torres remembers his childhood as a constant cycle of moving and struggling, moving and struggling, as his parents, immigrants from Ecuador, strove to provide a decent life for themselves and their three children.
“I grew up all over Queens, New York, moving apartments 10 or 11 times. Every time we couldn’t pay the rent,” he says, “we had to find a cheaper place to live.”
No matter where they landed, the environment never changed. They were surrounded by predominantly immigrant families who had no time to worry about making friends and creating community cohesion.
“Everyone’s primary concern was survival,” Irving says. “Just working, paying bills and surviving.”
Irving’s mother looked after her children’s basic needs providing food, clothing and emotional support, while also trying to earn extra money by working as a caretaker for the elderly. But the impact of poverty seemed inescapable.
“I had a very rough time up to that point,” says Irving. My school was in the middle of three housing projects where there was little hope and few aspirations.” In the summer we would not do much but just hang out in the park. My grades started slipping.”
Research shows that students from low-income areas are particularly susceptible to the “summer slide,” losing between 2.5 to 3.5 months of academic learning during July and August, while their affluent peers are making academic gains. The reality is even worse in September when teachers have to review lessons forgotten over the long break, making the academic losses closer to half a school year.
By the time Irving entered freshman year of high school, his parents had separated and he had moved in with his father. It turned out to be just the change Irving needed. His father didn’t have much money or a college degree, but he did have a steadfast conviction that the key to a better life for his children was education. While he worked overnight driving a cab, he made sure his children stayed at home, off the streets, focused on schoolwork.
“He did a great job drumming into our heads how important education was and how we needed to aspire to something beyond our neighborhood and our circumstances. Everyone in the neighborhood aspired to local schools; my Dad really wanted us not to limit ourselves to that.”
Thanks to his father’s guidance, Irving dreamed of going to a good college and becoming a lawyer. The next step to achieving that goal would come from another role model, a young man who came from the same side of the tracks and knew what Irving and other kids like him needed.
In 2011 Karim Abouelnaga had co-founded Practice Makes Perfect. Having grown up in an impoverished New York City neighborhood himself, Karim says it was non-profit organizations that connected him with mentors and role models who encouraged him to work hard and develop his potential.
“In large part, their belief in me and investment in my success allowed me to escape a dead-end life.”
Karim was looking for low-income, high-achieving students who wanted to do something worthwhile during the summer and earn a small stipend. After meeting Karim, Irving, a rising High School senior, at the top of his class, signed on to become a program mentor, having no idea what he would face that first summer day and in the weeks ahead.
“Picture rising eighth-graders, emotional, bouncing off the walls and I had to find a way to show them how important education is. I felt, wow, this is overwhelming to serve as a role model for these young students.“
“I felt in a position to do something about their perspective on education, their study habits and how they perceived their role in the education system. Some just didn’t want to be there. They wanted to be home, watching TV or hanging out in the park. It was tough for them to see where they could go from where they were.”
At the core of the Practice Makes Perfect program is a model of students teaching other students. For example, a tenth grader would teach a fifth grader, with the hope that the younger student would be more receptive to learning from someone in the same socioeconomic background and closer in age.
"After all,” Karim says, “who better to tell you how to do better in elementary school than someone who has just finished it?”
Irving remembers that first summer with Practice Makes Perfect as the best one of his life. He developed a personal bond with two of the students he mentored. A boy named Paul breezed through the material prepared for him so he had to give him more advanced work. Ceecee was a gem of a girl but, Irving says, she had trouble focusing and staying on task.
“I had to develop ways to get her to do her work. That was a challenge and, ultimately, a lot of fun.”
During the six weeks they worked together, Irving says the students began to confide in him about their lives at home and about middle school and high school.
“So I was able to see that these students did look up to me. For the first time in my life I felt like the cool older kid. These were neighborhood kids who looked up to me as a person.”
And that speaks to a key component of Practice Makes Perfect’s strategy: to match elementary and middle school students with older, higher-achieving mentor peers from the same inner-city neighborhoods and prevent the “summer slide” that happens when kids are out of school and losing education ground. For Irving, who spent three summers working with PMP, the experience taught him as much as he taught others.
“When the program ended, I was a sloppy mess of tears. The students and mentors were all sobbing. It was such a profound experience to be able to engage with students in the community and understand on such a personal and emotional level what they were going through. It revealed to me the systemic inequalities that happen in impoverished areas for so many reasons. I wish I had done it sooner.”
Today, Irving is making his parents proud as a junior at Cornell University where, in addition to a very challenging academic program, he is acting in a social justice theatre group called Ordinary People. After graduation Irving says he hopes to create artistic works that represent Latinos in the United States, and explore the plight of low-income families struggling to survive.
And he adds:
“My experience with Practice Makes Perfect is essential to that work.”