Education alumna builds tutoring/mentoring service from ground up

Jim Carlson
July 15, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kristina Hunter remembers when friends she made within her new church outside of Baltimore learned that she was a teacher and asked her if she did any tutoring. “Yes, I can,” she said at the time, and once she started, she’s yet to stop.

The Philadelphia native who graduated in 2018 from Penn State’s College of Education Integrated Undergraduate-Graduate program — which gave her a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in language and literacy education — began teaching in the Baltimore City Public School System soon after graduation. She began receiving so many inquiries about tutoring that it became overwhelming to juggle tutoring with full-time teaching, so she put a halt to the tutoring. But only temporarily.

When the interest in her services didn’t wane and the COVID-19 pandemic affected the academic world of youth not only in Baltimore but nationwide, she said to herself: “You know what, I can make this into an official business.”

And so Empowered Youth LLC was born. Hunter’s job in the Baltimore City Public School System is IEP (Individualized Education Program) chair overseeing her school’s special education department. But she’s also coordinating mentors and tutors under the Empowered Youth umbrella to empower and encourage students to achieve social, emotional and academic success through tutoring and mentoring.

Empowered Youth LLC is not a large organization. The students who are requesting tutoring and mentoring services are from her church, acquaintances of family members or, in some cases, students from her school. Those students might have autism spectrum disorder, specific learning disabilities, intellectual or physical disabilities or sensory impairments.

“I also wanted to incorporate mentoring as a part of the program because some of my friends from my church include a school-based therapist, school psychologist and graduate student/researcher, expressed interest in mentoring young ladies. That's how it evolved,” Hunter said. “In addition to tutoring, I wanted to have a mentoring program that focuses on the social and emotional development of the students and my fellow mentors could help me facilitate this program.”

Hunter said the mentoring program is called Queens Guiding Queens. “We have about 10 middle school and high school girls,” she said. “Then I have four adult mentors, including myself, who are from age 25 to 30. We meet with the girls bi-weekly during the school year. Right now, we are on summer break, but starting back in September we have mentoring sessions twice a month from September to June.”

Topics discussed include goal-setting, affirmations, self-care and more. “Just things that are happening in the world,” Hunter said. “We talked about the 2020 election in November; we talked about the current racial climate within the U.S. and anything that is relevant to their lives. We also ask for their suggestions on what they want to talk about, and some examples were ‘relationships’ and ‘friendships,’ so we incorporate that into our curriculum.”

There are three tutors who cover reading, writing and math from kindergarten to eighth grade. “I try to have at least two students per tutor. We had around six kids who we were tutoring throughout the year. We were able to maintain students from August until now,” she explained.

She said they also achieved success with those students. “I had one student who was in the tutoring program, and she also participated in the mentoring program. It was great to see her development as far as meeting her academic needs,” Hunter said. “In general, it is interesting to watch the students become comfortable and willing to share more during the mentoring session, especially since we participate through Zoom, and most of the girls have never met in person.

“As far as the academic progress, it has been really rewarding to see my students’ growth," she added. "My other tutors love it when they witness their students grasp a skill that they have been working on throughout the tutoring sessions. Seeing their success is a great feeling because it was a lot for me to tutor on my own, but to have two other tutors who are amazing at what they do and have made progress with their students is confirmation that we are on the right track.”

Hunter expects that numbers could grow if she is successful applying for applicable state and federal grants. Her tutors are paid; her mentors are not. “I have to do more research about how to write grants, or maybe hire somebody who is able to write grants, because I want to take Empowered Youth to the next level because the only source of income is through the tutoring program," she said. "That limits what we are able to do with both programs."

The more growth, the more goals, Hunter said. “I see us opening up tutoring centers, to have specific locations for students to come to receive their tutoring services and have a space to hold bi-weekly mentoring sessions,” she said. “In addition to having tutoring centers, my other goal is to give our students opportunities to travel around the U.S. to expose them to different cultural opportunities and experiences. The idea is to provide a well-rounded educational program.”

To provide others with an education, Hunter draws on her years at Penn State. She’s gone from teaching special education to overseeing her school’s special education department.

“I definitely thought about the introductory special education course with Dr. (Mary Catherine) Scheeler (associate professor emerita of education/special education); she really helped us understand the history of special education, characteristics of each disability and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which is the foundation of special education,” she said.

“I also draw upon my student teaching experience in the Altoona Area School District because I saw my mentor teacher prepare and run her IEP meetings. There’s a difference in Pennsylvania where the special educators facilitate IEP meetings; in Baltimore City, the special education teachers are just case managers. In my position as IEP chair, I facilitate and make sure that my team is prepared for IEP meetings. I said to myself, ‘Oh I can do this.’”

The pandemic created a few difficult situations for Hunter, particularly since most of Baltimore City schools were closed from March 2020 to February 2021. The city’s school system, she said, reopened in groups — a certain number of grades returning in February, more in March and by April everyone had the option to return in person.

Couple that with her learning a new position and still having to support her teachers, and it was a pull on one’s composure, she said.

“This experience took a lot of patience, willing to be uncomfortable in not knowing what to do and asking for help,” Hunter said. “The teachers would come to me and ask if they were doing things right and ask, ‘what should I do?’ I would try to help but sometimes I would say, ‘I don't know, but I will find out.’

“This was new territory, especially with delivering instruction, and providing our services. In special education, that's what we do, we provide a service to students with disabilities while making sure that we are staying within federal and state guidelines. I had to make sure that my school was still compliant because we had to adhere to the same timelines regarding holding meetings and completing assessments. It was a very stressful year, but we made it through!”

Hunter said her teacher training enabled her to feel confident with teaching and knowing when to ask for help and when to take initiative.

“The good thing (during the pandemic) was that I became confident with my use of technology because it helped me to remain very organized and systematic," she said. "But the downside was not seeing my students or having day-to-day interactions with my school’s staff."

Hunter oversees a team of seven special educators. “A majority of them are teachers of color,” she said. "We were able to have vulnerable conversations about how they’re feeling as a teacher, person of color and about life in general. My goal is to create a space for everyone to be seen and heard whether they are children or adults. That was definitely important to set the tone for our special education team.

“It is valuable (for students) to have that representation because it gives our students of color a sense of identity and relatability. It also allows students to be comfortable in the classroom setting because they see someone who looks like them and it feels like ‘OK, I don't have to be guarded; I feel accepted.’ Having that person who understands you and understands what you're going through is crucial because I have been there before in educational settings where I did and did not have teachers that I could talk to and relate to about racial situations that arise.”

Hunter said she was able to overcome stressors caused by teaching virtually, dealing with the pandemic, starting her new role as a chairperson and maintaining Empowered Youth LLC because of her faith.

“I knew starting a business and accepting the new position at my school was something that God wanted me to do. I rely on my strong sense of spirituality, and once I received God's confirmation, I had to follow my calling. In addition to working in the schools, I believe that this is going to be my contribution to the lives that I touch in this world,” Hunter said.

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Last Updated July 28, 2021