[Dallas Morning News] UTD professor runs math tutoring program in low-income neighborhoods


Gil Sik Lee took a wrong exit and stumbled upon his purpose. The college professor was on sabbatical in 1991 in Washington, D.C., when his path took him past several school-aged kids hanging out in the street during school hours. “I grew up in a poor neighborhood but felt fortunate to be told that school and education were the way out,” Lee said. “I believed these children could benefit from that same motivation.” Lee returned home to Baton Rouge, La., inspired to help students in low-income areas succeed academically. The area in which he could help most, he realized, was mathematics. So, in 1993, he and his wife started a math tutoring program that became IntelliChoice, a nonprofit tutoring network that now operates in five low-income neighborhoods from Denton to southeast Dallas.

The program has assembled a network of hundreds of registered volunteers — many from the University of Texas at Dallas, where Lee now teaches in the electrical engineering department. After Lee moved to North Texas, he rebooted his tutoring program, IntelliChoice, in 2005 at the Martin Luther King Branch Library in Dallas. All tutoring is free through the program, which serves nearly 300 registered students. The program uses its own materials for each grade level but also helps kids with their homework and class materials. Marlene Ramirez, a 16-year-old junior at Skyline High School in Dallas, has been involved in the tutoring program for years. “When I first started, they helped me with what I was starting to learn in school,” Marlene said. “As time went by, I actually started getting ahead of what I was learning in school. … I started getting better grades than my classmates.” The most helpful aspect of the tutoring program for Marlene has been the intimate learning environment. A tutor can deliver more personal attention to two or three students than a classroom teacher can sometimes devote on an individual basis. “I think it’s the same [as classroom teaching],” Marlene said. “It’s just that since there’s more volunteers there, you get really good communication with the volunteers. If you don’t understand something well, they actually take some time to explain it to you.”

Lee said the positive impact of the program is a two-way street. “If [students] are failing school, through this program they will benefit,” Lee said. “And secondly, all my volunteers — if they do this volunteer work, their lives will be enriched.” Perhaps none of the volunteer tutors travels farther each week than Joshua Choe, who on Saturdays makes the 100-mile round trip from Krum, a small community near Denton, to the MLK Branch and back. Why drive that far when there’s another tutoring location in Denton? “My fiancee is asking that as well,” Choe said with a laugh. “I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this, but I really want to see these kids go to college before I think about doing anything else. For me, that’s worth the drive.”

Marlene is one of those students Choe is helping to prepare for the SAT. She is taking pre-calculus at Skyline and knows she needs to make it into college to accomplish her career goals. “My interest and my goal is to become a nurse or maybe a doctor, so math is really useful in those areas,” Marlene said. “So is science, so it’s really going to help.” Choe said many of the volunteers come from Asian-American backgrounds. He said math often has a negative stigma with kids, but the earlier you can negate that, the better. “I think there’s a cultural emphasis that math is hard or not desirable, but we want to encourage [math] because … if you want to become a doctor, you need math,” Choe said. “If you want to make a difference in your community, you need math.” Marlene said she is thankful for the impact Lee’s program has had on her life.

“He’s a kind and awesome person,” Marlene said. “Who would do that? Who would take their time to offer a free program for every kid? It says a lot about him, and he’s a great, great person for doing this.” Lee said his work at UTD is his job, but his calling is helping kids achieve their goals by improving at math. “This makes me happy,” he said. “If it will help someone, that will make me happy, healthy.”

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