The House of Tutors

By Carlton Reese

RAMAL helps at-risk kids avoid the ‘summer slide’

The student reluctantly gives her answer to the teacher, hoping she has used the correct formula in discovering her answer to the equation.

“No, it looks like you did 4 times 3 instead of 4 to the third power,” the teacher replies. “Remember, 4 cubed is the same thing as saying 4 times 4 times 4, which is a much different answer.”

It may seem like a typical exchange between a teacher and student going over mathematical equations, but this is no typical classroom. The exchange is not taking place at one of the public schools and there is no competition for grades – the relationship between student and teacher does not exist in a compulsory situation.

It is a typical Thursday summer tutoring session at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Marion County, where students hope to avoid that dreaded “summer slide” in which all academic gains made the previous school year nearly become lost in the months lacking academic stimulation. For the students in this class, the academic help comes from RAMAL Education and Social Services, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization started in 2009 by lifelong Ocala resident and educator Barbara Brooks.

According to Brooks, avoiding the summer slide becomes more difficult for children who are deemed at-risk due to financial, social or family issues at home. Into that void steps RAMAL, which stands for “Reach, Aim, Motivate And Lead.”

Born and raised in Ocala, Brooks’ background is in education – she earned a master’s and a doctorate in education and, although now retired, she is in her 51st year as a certified teacher. She is putting her skills to work in the service of people in the community.

“Even though I’m retired, I work harder than when I had a 9-to-5 job, so to speak,” Brooks joked. “This is my heart; this is my mission.”

In order to bring much-needed tutoring services to children of the community, Brooks has assembled a team of volunteer educators who are certified teachers in the Marion County Public Schools and who share her passion of elevating those in need. Their concern over the summer is the children who do not have internet access in their homes or lack any tutorial help from family members in their homes – these are the students who slide back and need help the most.

“When they return to school in the fall, many times it’s like a catch-up or a remediation of what they learned the previous term,” Brooks said. “So we are trying to minimize that academic slide.”

RAMAL tutoring classes are among a long list of items on the Boys and Girls Clubs menu of services, and even though it’s about learning equations and improving reading skills and not shooting baskets or painting pictures, the sessions are jammed full. Parents know they can trust the classes and that they work.

Currently, four sessions with 22 students each range in grades from kindergarten through seventh and the focus is on math and reading. Students come in for a term and are assessed before classes begin. Upon completion of the term, a post-session assessment takes place to see the level of improvement.

For Brooks, getting second- and third-graders at the proper skill levels is most important.

“The most critical area is the second- and third-grade level,” Brooks said. “If the students are not at grade level by the third grade, you have possibly lost them for the rest of their whole academic life. So when we came back from the pandemic, we worked with second- and third-graders only.”

RAMAL represents community outreach in every sense of the word. There is no large-scale bureaucracy making policy from a distant office, just hands-on volunteers offering up their time, services and even money for the simple cause of improving people’s lives.

In addition to tutoring, RAMAL offers help in the form of school supplies for children in need and college scholarships to non-traditional students like older adults.

“We get donations,” Brooks said. “We don’t have any major sponsors or big grants, so nobody gets paid – we survive on the volunteers and people donating because they understand our mission.

“All the administrative costs I absorb. When people give, they’re giving directly to people — they’re not giving a car that some CEO is driving, they’re not giving to their retirement. We give directly to people.”

When Brooks started RAMAL, it was her pet project in retirement and now it seems this is what she was meant to do all along. As someone who lives on the west side of town, she noticed very few nonprofits, and what events there were all seemed to take place on the east side of town. This motivated her to begin an outreach program that today is thriving with numerous partnerships and improving the lives of those who go through RAMAL’s programs.

“I thought, ‘How about if we have these events, these scholarships, these services on the west side of Ocala?’” Brooks remembers. “Now, there are a whole bunch of nonprofits.”

From tutoring at-risk youths to providing school supplies and scholarships for those in need to feeding families and providing presents for kids during the holidays, Brooks is fulfilling her mission every day. The key, she says, is in partnering and collaborating with the right people who share the same vision.

Mojo’s restaurant has partnered with RAMAL to provide bicycles for kids during Christmas – 32 in 2019 and 25 last year. Christmas donations are handed out at the annual Chosen Children Christmas Party at the Scottish Rite of Ocala as well as the Parkside Gardens Christmas Party. Brooks has also partnered with St. Paul AME Church in distributing holiday meals to over 400 families.

“We have collaborations with organizations because we are so small we couldn’t do a lot of the things we do, such as the tutoring program,” Brooks said. “I say this is my ministry, this is my give-back. This is my everything, so it makes me feel good.”

RAMAL accepts financial donations at its website ramalservices.org and one can also gather information for volunteering there. Those wanting to donate supplies are asked to phone the organization at 352-873-1319.    

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