Helping solve the problem
By NICK WALDEN / Rohnert Park Correspondent
Mr. P (aka Donald J. Persico) is a beloved tutor at the Rohnert Park Boys and Girls Club, even though his specialty is mathematics. He looks a little like Einstein and can seem intimidating at first, but that quickly changes after kids work with him.
Persico has been tutoring at the club since fall 2010. He works every day after school, except Fridays, and stays until 5:30 p.m. or later if a child needs extra help. Over summer and winter breaks he is at the club just about every day it is open.
“He is easily our most active volunteer,” said Club Director Micki Jones.
Persico wasn’t always a teacher, but he has always had affection for math. Now 77, he received his bachelor’s in math from the University of Buffalo and then earned his master’s in mathematics from Ohio State in 1959. He then spent almost 34 years working in his field, with 25 years in aerospace and another nine as an actuary.
In 1994, this father of five became a substitute teacher in Sonoma County and spent the next 14 years teaching elementary school to high school for the Santa Rosa, Petaluma, West Valley, and Cotati-Rohnert Park School Districts. About half of those 14 years were spent teaching math Persico estimated.
Those years of teaching at so many levels make it easier for him to get in touch with children who might struggle in the classroom.
“Mr. P understands how not all kids learn the way it is taught,” noted Jones. “He sees the potential in kids and knows how important math is.”
Gracie Gorell, a 12-year-old who attends Lawrence Jones Middle School, comes in early each day just to work with him. That extra attention has paid off.
“She had been doing badly in sixth grade with her math, and we were concerned about what would happen at the next level,” said DeeDee Gorell, Gracie’s mother. “At the start of seventh grade she was not doing well, but didn’t want to go in to work with him.
“He kept after her, and one day she went in before snack for some one-on-one time. He explained it in a way that allowed her to get it. Now he just gives her the confidence she needs. Gracie went from a C minus to an A and gets 100% on some of her assignments.”
Said Jones, “In school the teachers need to keep moving forward with the entire class,” said Jones. “When it is time to move to the next level, like multiplication, they have to because of the testing requirements. Mr. P works with kids who need help to get them where they need to be.”
Persico said he is not on a schedule, so he can work with kids on any one concept until they are ready to move to the next level. “I also have a photographic memory,” he said. “I can remember books I read 30 years ago.” He also can remember what each student is working on and which exercises he has given them.
With the help of SSU students, Persico has created 310 different math worksheets for grades 1 to 8 that come in various levels of difficulty. He chooses which worksheets to use when helping children strengthen their weak points.
To keep them motivated, he created a reward system. First- and second-graders can earn award by completing eight worksheets. Older students must complete 10. Then they can win a special treat for passing the test and moving on to the next level. Persico also created the Mathematics Member of the Month Award to recognize two students for their hard work.
“When I see these kids and they do a math problem and they get a big grin on their face, that’s job satisfaction,” said Persico.
Each day after school, 65 kids come to the club. During the summer, their numbers swell to 125, with those visiting Mr. P doing so voluntarily.
Along with math, Persico brought another of his passions to the club. He started a baseball card trading club and incorporates baseball stats into learning for the kids.
“I was going to start up a card store with two of my sons,” Persico said. Since that didn’t happen, he needed something to do with the 3 million cards he has amassed over the years. Now they are given as rewards for completing worksheets.
“I am finding a good home for them,” he said. “Just like money, you can’t take it with you.”
Persico uses them to teach the children how to read box scores, about trading cards and card value, and even the history of the game. He also reintroduced a game from his childhood, “card tossing,” which is sort of like shuffleboard but using baseball cards.
“This is something we did as kids,” he said. “It teaches competitiveness and sportsmanship,” he said. Boys and girls play throughout the year, and prizes are awarded for the grand champion, second and third place finishers.
“It’s just amazing everything that he has done here,” said Jones. “He makes a big deal out of their accomplishments. He helps kids who are struggling and helps kids who get it by challenging them to do more.” Due to the excitement of getting to work with Mr. P, the club created special “math passes” they can use after they have finished their other homework.
“He changed the culture in our club in regards to academic success,” said Jones. “He is 100% in line with what we do here and what our mission is, helping kids reach their potential.”
The Boys and Girls Club of Rohnert Park is located at 7450 Santa Barbara Drive, 795-0139.