Chester High School freshman Jameisha Johnson is the first to admit that school was not working for her. She struggled academically, had serious behavioral issues, and was placed in an alternative-school program.

Then two Widener University professors and their cadre of student tutors stepped in with a pilot program aimed at increasing literacy for at-risk students, simultaneously providing hands-on experiences for their education majors.

"My grades went up. My behavior improved. I got into sports," said Johnson, 15, who plays point guard on both the junior varsity and varsity girls' basketball team, even though she's only a ninth grader.

She is one of six students in the Widener program from Camelot Chester's Transitional School, a Chester High program operated by a for-profit company that specializes in alternative education.

In September, Mimi Staulters, an assistant professor of special education, and Nancy Blank a professor of criminal justice at Widener, teamed up with Camelot and Diakon Youth Services to create the 10-week individualized programs for Chester students. It involves both tutors and caseworkers.

Blank is using a small amount of grant money to cover costs of the class materials. There is no cost to the students or to Camelot. Diakon is covering the costs of its caseworkers, Staulters said.

Staulters and Blank are writing a grant proposal for more funding with an eye toward expanding the program.

Each Camelot student is tutored twice a week by two of the 12 Widener education majors who are participating. The focus is on literacy. But if a student requests extra help in another area - such as social studies, as Johnson did - those lessons are added, Staulters said.

The program doesn't benefit just the high schoolers.

"What my students get from the [Chester] students is amazing," said Staulters.

The Widener students come away with a better understanding of the challenges facing their charges - some only a few years younger than they are - who live in a community dealing with issues such as poverty, violence, crime, and drug use, she said.

"You realize why academics had taken a backseat," said Jessica Dembeck, 21, a Widener tutor from Philadelphia's Mayfair section.

The Widener students also learn to better manage their time and collaborate with Diakon caseworkers and staff at Camelot, Staulters said.

"It's a win-win for me," said Dan Peticca, executive director at Camelot. The program has about 130 students, many reading on a third-grade level.

Kate Hughes, a senior tutor from Ridley Township, said she felt a bond with Johnson in their first session and even plans to attend one of her basketball games.

When working with Johnson, Hughes found the freshman put a lot of pressure on herself and would shut down if she didn't succeed instantly.

"When a student is failing and not learning, it is not a reflection of their ability to learn," Hughes said. "It is a reflection of our ability to teach and understand the needs of our students."

Hughes told Johnson that she didn't expect her to get everything right. But just to try her best. Now, the pair work through the material - and mistakes - until Johnson is comfortable with the lesson.

Johnson said she likes the change she sees in herself and her grades. She credits the one-on-one attention she has received from her tutors for boosting her self-confidence. She even has an eye on her future.

"I've been thinking about going to law school," Johnson said.

mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111

@MariSchaeferA