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Claremont nonprofit Middle Tree helps to fill the educational gaps

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed cracks in all strata of American society, and one of its most glaring reveals has taken place in education.

School districts in more affluent areas of the country have been able to tap into supplemental financial help from community or nonprofit sources, and colleges with massive endowments have kept the lights on, but some students in less financially robust areas have been left behind.

Locally, distance learning has been a source of stress and anxiety and in some cases hopelessness for many students and teachers. There are some who have adapted well to the isolation and inherent technical challenges, but more are struggling than thriving.

Middle Tree, a Claremont-based educational nonprofit, stepped into this void last March, and its impact on the Pomona Unified School District has been profound.

“The caliber of the tutors that Middle Tree has been able to bring in and the compassion that they show for our students, it’s hard to come by,” Washington Elementary Principal Alan Pantanini said. “When they come in they just really know how to connect with kids right off the bat. They really know how to engage with them and really develop real positive relationships with them. That’s my next thing to ask [Middle Tree Director and Chairman Joseph Atman] is, ‘What are you doing to train these guys?’”

Pre-pandemic, Middle Tree had been working with two PUSD schools and about 100 students. It’s now partnered with 12 schools at all levels, helps about 600 students, and is prepared to double that number if the need arises.

“As strange as it sounds, we are twice as effective online, in that we can handle twice as many students,” said Mr. Atman.

The nonprofit got its start with an eight-week pilot program at Pomona College over the summer of 2015.

“The idea was simply to allow for anyone to access summer academic help, regardless of their capacity to pay for it,” Mr. Atman said. “That original idea was, ‘Here’s what we believe this is worth. If you can pay that, great. If not, no problem. We will do it for free. We will do it for whatever you can afford.”

Middle Tree took the confidence that first brush of summer success afforded and leased an office in the Village. Now five years and hundreds of students later, it just completed its fifth expansion into adjacent office space.

Mr. Atman freely admits his journey from growing up in the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Illinois to running a successful nonprofit in the Village wasn’t part of a long simmering grand plan.

After earning his doctorate in sacred theology from Saint Mary’s Seminary in Colorado in 2005, he naturally thought about a working as a professor in higher education. But jobs were few and far between.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, I might need to think of something else to do,’” Mr. Atman said. “Maybe I can combine what I’ve learned with my academic upbringing, and impress upon a small community some of the things that I’ve learned about education in general. I saw so many faults in the system and thought if I can develop a program that, at least for a summer, would allow students to have access to education that they wouldn’t normally be afforded, and if we could do this at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, that might give people an idea about what their potentials were.”

Though it offers art classes and writing workshops, Middle Tree’s curriculum has so far been weighted mostly toward the nuts and bolts of core academics.

“We try to get into that creative space as well,” Mr. Atman said. “It’s something that I’d like to expand on. As we grow and expand, our programming grows and expands along with the wants of the community. We listen to the need of the community and develop programming around that need.”

Its success has hinged upon a unique “unlimited time” tutoring plan. Similar to a gym membership, students are able to access the nonprofit’s teachers for as much time as they need, period. It also offers an hourly rate plan, but the unlimited model is far more popular.

And perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Middle Tree isn’t just working with kids who are struggling. At Washington Elementary, it’s the opposite.

“Our school has a lot of support for intervention for students that are struggling, while we don’t for students that are excelling,” Mr. Pantanini said. “So we thought, how do we accelerate them and get them excited about learning more, increase their motivation, and get them more of what Middle Tree has to offer?”

One alarming trend among students during the pandemic has been the proliferation of social-emotional issues that have spiked for myriad reasons, with isolation from peers topping the list. Middle Tree’s tutors have leaned into this problem as well.

“We’ve found that you don’t need to have a degree in psychology to be able to be great support for people, especially now, where we’re just seeking out some human contact when it’s so abundantly lacking,” Mr. Atman said.

Though many nonprofits rely heavily on corporate or community funding, Middle Tree’s primary source of revenue has been its member support.

“We’re working on that,” Mr. Atman said. “We’ve found that people don’t necessarily want to throw their money at something they‘re not sure is going to be there next year. People are much more likely to donate to reputable places. And that’s understandable. But now we’re starting to gain some traction. We’re starting to show that our program is working. So we’re hoping to be able to garner some more community support in the future. But we understand that’s slow to come by, and for good reason.”

For now, the Claremont nonprofit is growing and reaching more students every day. The hope is when in-person school returns, Middle Tree will be established on school campuses to help with that transition.

“Our teachers are trained up, knowledgeable, good hearted people who are there and ready to help,” Mr. Atman said.

Along with its work with PUSD, Middle Tree is currently seeing students from all districts in person at its Claremont offices in a safe, socially distant manner, Mr. Atman said. 

Mr. Atman admits guiding a burgeoning educational nonprofit was not how he saw his life playing out when he graduated from St. Mary’s in 2005. But as Middle Tree has blossomed, so have the job’s intangible benefits.

 “I love what I do,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, to be honest with you. The world was smarter than I am, as far as this is concerned. Had I picked my own career I wouldn’t be happy, I wouldn’t be this motivated, I wouldn’t be this involved in my community. This completely gives my life a meaning I never even knew was possible. So I feel extraordinarily fortunate and blessed to be doing this every day.”

To learn more, go to www.middletree.org, call (909) 293-9560, or email info@middletree.org.

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