Salida McDonald's helping students to supersize grades

SALIDA — An eighth- grader last year at Modesto's Hanshaw Middle School, Lyana Overbey struggled badly in math — so badly that it seemed she might not graduate.

"I was really behind," the 14-year-old said.

Her mother, Samantha Francis, couldn't afford private tutoring.

"I'm a single mom raising two kids," Francis said. "I don't have that kind of money."

One day, Lyana's grandmother stopped at a fast food restaurant in Salida. While waiting for her order, Linda Teague noticed a flier offering free tutoring for elementary and high school students right there in the land of the Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, Egg McMuffin and Happy Meal.

Yes, the folks at the Mickey D's in Salida are ready and willing to help children supersize their grades, from F's and D's to C's and B's — or even A's.

Grandma Linda took a flier to Francis, who immediately began bringing Lyana there every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon.

"It's worth the drive," said Francis, who lives in south Modesto and motors up to the restaurant off Highway 99.

"They helped me out to the point where I could graduate," Lyana said.

Maybe it's the less-institutional learning setting. Maybe it was that the tutors are McDonald's employees who are college or high school students themselves. Or maybe it was the free cookies-and- milk snacks the students receive whenever they come.

"I just liked it here more," Lyana said. "They helped me understand it (algebra)."

Tutoring, at McDonald's, is one of those inventions mothered by the necessity of restaurant manager Minerva Saenz, herself the mom of a struggling elementary school student.

"I felt guilty, juggling work, picking up the kids and getting dinner on the table at home every night," Saenz said. "(Daughter Lucy) needed so much more."

In talking with other parents, Saenz found they had the same issue: so many responsibilities, so little time and their children needing help.

So last year, she pitched the in-store tutoring idea to franchise owner-operator Dennis Graspointner.

"He was very supportive," she said.

Then she asked a couple of her employees who are college students if they'd be interested in tutoring a couple of afternoons each week — on company time, of course. One, Marco Vargas, plans on becoming a teacher anyway, and agreed. So did another employee.

So she made the fliers and set them out for the taking.

"Lots of parents picked them up," Saenz said. "You'd hear them say their sons or daughters are struggling, too."

At first, just a few, including Francis, brought their children in. Then it picked up.

Now, on any given Tuesday or Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m., as many as a dozen students come to the restaurant. Sometimes, their parents drop them off. Other times, the parents stay and watch from a distance as their kids and tutors work together. They might eat, take their younger children to the play area or watch TV in another part of the restaurant.

"And I have the ability to open it up for more if there's a need for it," Saenz said.

In the program's second year, she's discovered the numbers pick up right after the first progress reports — that first official sign of scholastic trouble — come out in the fall semester, although there have been nights when none attended.

"We do it as a community service," Saenz said.

They have everything from students needing help in math or their writing skills to honor students who just like the more relaxed atmosphere.

Jessica Saenz, Minerva Saenz's niece and one of the McDonald's tutors, is an 18-year-old freshman at Modesto Junior College who is considering a career in sports medicine. She said it doesn't take long for the newcomers to get acclimated.

"I feel like for some of them, it is better for them to be with someone closer to their own age," she said. "I'm hoping they're comfortable here. Some parents bring their kids reluctantly, but that changes after they are getting help."

Vargas took a year off from California State University, Stanislaus, because he needed to earn money to pay for school. He plans to return in September. In the meantime, he's getting valuable one-on-one teaching experience working with the kids at McDonald's.

"It's seeing that moment of, 'Oh! I get it!' " he said. "It's that moment where they're struggling, and now they get it."

Lyana got it enough to graduate with her middle school class and go on to Johansen High.

"They helped me get on track," she said.

A faster track, at least, thanks to McTutors.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at 578-2383 or