‘My expectations … I’d change the world.’

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Elaine Levinson believes too many of today’s children are faced with too many strikes against them. “I think it’s very difficult today,” she says. “The drug scene, the promiscuity, the latch-key kids; there’s no morality.”

This concern motivated her to sign up as a tutor for Working In The Schools (WITS). Levinson, 61, who stayed at home for 40 years to raise her four children, began tutoring five years ago.

“I admit my expectations on the first day were that I’d change the world. I don’t know where I was coming from,” she muses. “I see now that if you can change one person’s direction, you’re doing well.”

Levinson tutors a class of 28 3rd-graders at Sojourner Truth Elementary School in Cabrini Green. The school has 463 students in grades K-3 and 200 preschoolers who attend a Child Parent Center in another building.

Levinson was raised in Philadelphia and attended Francis Scott Key Elementary School, Fernis Junior High School and Overbrook High School. She married a student at the University of Pennsylvania after attending Penn State University for two years.

Times are different today, she says. Levinson balks at those who say resources don’t make a difference. “I look at the curriculum my grandson, who’s in 3rd grade, is getting, and it’s more advanced. Now we’re in the computer age; the world is so advanced already, and these kids [at Truth] don’t have the materials.”

School officials told her most kids go home to parents with drug problems; many students were born with drugs in their systems. “Many kids are loved, but they’re not getting enough to compete,” she says.

One of Levinson’s most prized moments was teaching a student to read aloud. “She had never read aloud to anyone before. She had no concept about inflections or stopping at the end of a sentence,” she says. “Now when we read, her voice goes up when there’s an exclamation or a question mark. She reads with more authority and confidence.”

Levinson also organizes trips for the students, dipping into a savings account set up for this purpose by her friends. She has bought books and taken the students to see Cinderella and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe from Harlem. Her latest endeavor was a photography project. A friend of Levinson’s who is a docent at the Museum of Contemporary Art gave each student a disposal 35mm camera and told them to take photos. They posted the pictures on a bulletin board and displayed them at the MCA.

“A lot of them brought back photos that were taken at Cabrini Green through the meshing that’s on the building. They looked east and took photos of the high rises through the meshing. That’s how they see the world.”

More tutors are needed, Levinson says. “The teacher I work with said she could use two or three of me a day.”

But many are afraid to volunteer. “Many of my friends give me checks but they won’t come down there, they’re too afraid,” she says.

“Why do I do it? I have time to give back now, and I feel that’s where I’m needed the most. And I love it.”

Laurens Grant