Cesar Chavez Library A community’s young adults pitch in to help little ones learn

It’s 3 pm and Cesar Chavez Library in Salinas is filling up with kids. Graciela Flores taps them on the head—“40, 41, 42”—as they sign in to the homework center. Over the next two hours, about 75 Salinas schoolchildren will come to the library to work—with help from some exceptional tutors.


Tutoring has emerged as a key strategy for boosting educational achievement in a city where, in 2010, 38 percent of people over 25 hadn’t completed high school and only 10 percent had graduated from college. When Salinas Deputy Librarian Carissa Purnell Vallecillo began working at the library in 2007, the homework center was serving 70 to 80 kids a day. “We had kids on the floor, kids everywhere,” and just one staff member to help them, she recalls.

Other free programs were available to help the lowest-performing kids but “that left out the kids who weren’t failing—but still needed help,” she says. The library wanted to expand tutoring services so she looked for funding and began making use of one of the community’s biggest untapped assets—young people who wanted to give back. People like Marissa Flores.

Hartnell College sophomore Stephen Corona, 24, helps Yacer Picazo, a Sherwood Elementary School student, with his English reading.
Hartnell College sophomore Stephen Corona, 24, helps Yacer Picazo, a Sherwood Elementary School student, with his English reading.

Marissa, a Salinas native who recently graduated from UC-Davis in environmental toxicology, began volunteering as a tutor when she was 15. “I had to come here,” she says, “if I wanted to spend time with my Mom.”

She’s only half-kidding. Her mother, Graciela, has been working with kids since Marissa was little. Growing up in Patzcuaro, Mexico, Graciela had wanted to become a teacher. Instead, she came to the U.S. 25 years ago and worked in the fields. She also studied English at Hartnell College, volunteered at her daughter’s elementary school, became a lunch supervisor, a tutor at the YMCA, then manager of the library’s tutoring center. Her younger daughter, Natalie, a high school student, also does tutoring shifts. “This is the family business,” Graciela jokes.

Marissa couldn’t stay away even after leaving for college; she’d help out whenever she came back for a break. After graduating last spring, she became part of Purnell Vallecillo’s team of 22 tutors, each working up to 25 hours a week. They’re perfect for the job, Purnell Vallecillo says, because “they’re bilingual, they went to the same schools and came from the same streets. Kids are less inhibited with them, and more willing to ask questions.”

Tutor Mariana Garcia, left, works with student Miranda Escobar on her homework at the Los Padres Learning Center in Salinas.
Tutor Mariana Garcia, left, works with student Miranda Escobar on her homework at the Los Padres Learning Center in Salinas.

In reality, Marissa says, she works almost full-time, putting in unpaid hours on nights and weekends and even making house calls. Last year, she worked with one boy, Raul, a 1st grader with ADHD whose parents spoke no English. She worked with him 3 hours a day, going over the alphabet and teaching him phonetics. Today, in 2nd grade, he’s still not reading at grade level, but he’s made a big jump, Marissa says.

“I see myself in every kid that comes here,” Marissa says. “I know the struggle of being in a household where your parents don’t speak English. When I was growing up I got a lot of help. If I don’t come back and do my part, who will?”

She points across the room, where Maria Castro, a 7th-grader with a dark ponytail, is helping a boy with spelling. A few years ago, Marissa helped Maria with her 1st-grade homework; now she helps her learn the skills and patience needed to be a good tutor.

“She gets flustered when kids don’t listen,” Marissa says. “She’ll say: “Marissa, I don’t know how you dealt with us all those years; why did you keep coming?’ And I say, ‘You’ll find out soon enough.’ She’s learning to be patient.”

Tutor Elizabeth Pacheco has her hands full with different homework assignments at the Cesar Chavez Library’s homework center in Salinas.
Tutor Elizabeth Pacheco has her hands full with different homework assignments at the Cesar Chavez Library’s homework center in Salinas.

Maria tutors mostly in math and science—her favorite subjects. “They have trouble with algebra,” she says. “I’m good at it.” She tries to give her young students the same advice she gives herself: “Sometimes I stress out when I’m trying to do something hard. So stick with it and take it one step at a time.”

In October 2012, the library closed for 14 months of construction so Purnell Vallecillo and her team set up tutoring centers at three elementary schools—Los Padres, Sherwood and Roosevelt—and Alisal Family Resource Center. Now, with the library back, the five sites serve 150 kids a day.

In the back of the room, 6-year-old Yuridia is reading “Turtle and Snake Go Camping” under the watchful gaze of Mariana Garcia, an Alisal High graduate now attending California State University-Monterey Bay. Jesus, also 6, comes over with a spelling question and Mariana show him the ‘w’ he needs to complete his word.

“When I was small, I had no one to teach me math or help me,” Mariana says. “I love what I do here, it’s more than just a job.”

While the tutors work with kids, Graciela Flores connects with each mother who comes to pick up her child. She has a reminder for kids and parents that she repeats almost every day—that they need to think about college. “Work hard,” she says. “Change your life. Then you can do whatever you want.” With a little help from the extended family.

Esmeralda Hernandez is ready to head home after a long homework help session at the Los Padres Learning Center in Salinas.
Esmeralda Hernandez is ready to head home after a long homework help session at the Los Padres Learning Center in Salinas.

For more information about the Cesar Chavez Library, visit www.salinaspubliclibrary.org.

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