Sarah Ziker, a tutor at Seattle’s West Seattle High, works in that school’s freshman-support program, and says her job involves much more than academics.

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(Editor’s note: In a story published this past weekend, Education Lab wrote about schools that are working to boost graduation rates by focusing more on their ninth-graders. Seattle’s West Seattle High is one of those schools, and tutor Sarah Ziker writes about her experience there.)

After six months of tutoring at-risk students at West Seattle High School, I found myself working with a freshman boy who was interested in what I had done before coming to work at the school. When I told him I attended a four-year university, he was shocked.

“Wait,” he said. “You went through four years of college just to end up here?!”

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Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton talked about freshman-support programs with KNKX’s Ariel Van Cleave. Their conversation can be found at

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

He was convinced I had settled for this job (I hadn’t) or was just waiting until I could become a real teacher (I wasn’t).

His astonishment made me wonder: If he saw so little value in my job, what must he think about the value of his own education?

I spent much of the past school year working with freshmen in West Seattle’s GOT 9 program (GOT standing for “get on track”). It focuses extra academic support on ninth graders who struggled academically in middle school in an effort to help them succeed in high school. Together we studied for tests on the Roman Empire, edited essays on “A Raisin in the Sun,” and dug through backpacks searching for missing assignments I had watched them complete weeks earlier. Sometimes the extra attention worked. Other times, I would be convinced a student was on their way to an A or B in a class, only to find, a week later, they had stopped showing up or decided to stop turning work in since they were no longer close to failing. The year was full of such ups and downs.

What was consistent from week to week, though, was the resilience and complexity of all my young students. But they didn’t always see themselves that way. On particularly challenging days, students would often apologize for the fact that I “had” to work with them, or tell me just how frustrating it must be for me to be there. To be fair, having to pause every thirty seconds in order to tell a student to stop Snapchatting definitely gets very old, very fast. But what’s even more frustrating is the fact that many of these kids seem to believe they just aren’t worth the trouble, and can’t possibly be successful. So why should I, or they, even bother to try?

Many of the students I work with are immigrants, Muslims, people of color, or some combination of the three. When they see how people who look like them are portrayed in the media, it solidifies their view of themselves as incapable of achieving. They see what society expects of them, a society that has been built for white, middle-to-upper-class Americans, and they know what they are up against. They know they have classmates who don’t have to worry about the school calling their house and conveying important information to a parent who doesn’t speak English. They know they have fewer chances to work on an assigned essay because they don’t have a computer at home. They know that when the time comes to take the SAT college-entrance test, they have classmates who can afford to hire tutors and learn all the tricks to boosting their scores. My students may be young, but they are keenly aware that they lack the safety nets and backup plans that many of their peers have. That is where the tutoring center and I come in — as best we can, we strive to catch them when they fall.

In order to fulfill that goal, my colleagues and I take on many roles beyond that of a tutor. We are advocates for students when they are too intimidated or don’t know how to speak for themselves, we are coaches who work with students on how to communicate with others at school, and we are a sounding board when school as an institution simply does not make sense. Providing positive reinforcement is an important part of our service, focusing our praise not only on good grades, but on effort. I see students work their very hardest to earn Cs and Ds, and they deserve recognition for what they have accomplished. It has been a gift to see students like the one who couldn’t believe I would want to work with high schoolers like him grow into themselves as learners and gain confidence in the classroom. This particular student ended the school year with a high GPA, and instead of asking about my college experience, and has begun asking about the experience that he hopes to one day have.

While many of the students who flow in and out of the tutoring center see high school as something simply to survive, I see it as a way to lift these young adults up. Education is a powerful tool for them to have at their disposal, and one that can give them the opportunity to push back against stereotypes, become leaders in our community, and create change for the students that follow.

I look forward to seeing my students become that change.

Sarah Ziker is a tutor at West Seattle High.