Free tutors are helping aspiring electricians refresh their math skills in metro Denver

A program aimed at helping adults pass aptitude exams is bringing together work development and community partners.
5 min. read
Marshall Diemert and his father, Bill, study math problems during a group tutoring class on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, in North Washington. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Fred Berendse stood next to a whiteboard with dimly projected math problems. The projector had overshot the board, so some of the problems were on the wall above it. The problems involved writing out sums as both mixed numbers and improper fractions.

Sitting across Berendse was Bill Diemert and behind him was his son, Marshall Diemer, 18. For about an hour, Berendse methodically ran through the solution for one equation, walking through how to find the common denominator and why it was necessary. Marshall Diemert soon picked up the pattern and started responding more frequently.

Afterward, during a short break, Bill Diemert marveled at Berendse's patience.

"I am very impressed with him as a tutor," Bill Diemert said, before motioning to this son. "Don't you think he's pretty good?" Marshall Diemert agreed.

The two were the only participants of a free group tutoring session hosted at the Denver Joint Electrical Apprenticeship and Training Committee's training center in North Washington. The older Diemert had stopped by with his son, who's considering becoming an electrician. It was their first class.

The class is part of a new partnership between DJEATC, the work development program WorkNow and a mentoring nonprofit Athletics & Beyond that started in November. In addition to group tutoring, participants who sign up for skills training can take part in one-on-one tutoring with tutors from Athletics & Beyond.

Right now, the tutoring primarily helps with prep for an aptitude exam that must be passed in order to qualify for an electrician apprenticeship program. WorkNow is hoping to eventually expand the program for all apprenticeship programs.

"Really, all we do is open the doors for a classroom," DJEATC training director Dan Hendricks said.

Once they pass, they can start a program that could lead to a career as an electrician or telecommunications technician. Hendricks said the average salary for someone in this field is about $70,000 a year, which he said doesn't factor in benefits.

WorkNow pays for the tutors like Berendse from Athletics & Beyond to make it free for anyone who signs up for the skills training at DJEATC.

WorkNow tries to connect residents with construction jobs in public and private projects throughout the Denver metro area. It's a program formed under an alliance called Colorado Resource Partners, which is an 11-member coalition focused on construction industry job training and career advancement.

The tutors go through testing themselves, with many of them certified teachers. (Berendse is a former high school math and science teacher.)

Athletics & Beyond office manager Mo Armstrong said a big part of their organization is giving back to the community. The mentorship nonprofit serves students in the metro area and has seven tutors assigned at DJEATC. They're currently only providing math tutoring, though they're looking at possible tutoring for other subjects as well.

Tutoring can be significant. Hendricks said before they began the partnership, they were seeing a roughly 25 percent "non-qualifier" rate, or a failure rate. Since then, they've increased their overall qualifier rate in the exam to about 80 to 90 percent.

Fred Berendse leads a group tutoring class on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the DJEATC training center in North Washington. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

It has another effect as well: It can help tutors like Devon "Bubba" Zavala-Elliston, 23, get paid for tutoring while getting real-world work experience.

Zavala-Elliston is currently a graduate student in biochemistry at CU Denver. The Denver East High School graduate is hoping to attend medical school. He is one of the students who focus on one-on-one tutoring with students, which means he can travel to do private sessions with people who might want extra help.

The students pretty much run the gamut when it comes to previous experience.  Zavala-Elliston remembered one student whom he helped pass his apprenticeship exam.

"This was a man who already had his degree, in psychology," Zavala-Elliston said. "He was just brushing up on his math. And you know, he was just brushing up on his math and he was like, 'Man, I don't know a lot of this stuff.'"

The partnership started with help from Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who has worked with WorkNow in the past.

The group classes are held every Thursday evening. Organizers are hoping more people show up.

Most classes typically have two or three students, usually adults, though Hendricks is hoping more folks show up. And while it might not be the most ideal Thursday night plan, they believe it can lead to positive things. Organizers understand some folks may be hesitant about reaching out for additional help.

The kind of tutoring provided at DJEATC is critical since calculators aren't allowed during the exam.

"We're talking about adults," Armstrong said. "Nobody wants that kind of pressure. The easier that we make the process and the connections, between WorkNow and the apprenticeship and the tutoring, the more successful they are."

Bill Diemert said he accompanied his son to be supportive. He took a similar electrician exam several years ago, though he works in a different field these days. He sees the tutoring as an important step toward a shot at not just a job, but a career.

"This is a gold mine for people looking for a trade," Bill Diemert said.

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