Twins started tutoring for classmates at Pigeon Forge

May. 18, 2014 @ 03:14 PM

 Nia and Nakai Cooley aren’t from Sevier County, but that hasn’t stopped the girls from making their adopted city their home.

The pair moved with their father, Scott Cooley, from Texas just before their freshman year of high school. After a year at Gatlinburg-Pittman, the duo settled in at PFHS, and the rest has been history.

“We’ve always been really talkative and open-minded when it comes to people, and everyone here was the same way, too,” Nia said last week at the school. “They cared about getting to know us, and band was a big part of it. (Band camp) is right before school, so you get to meet the people you’re going to be with for all four years.”

The talkative pair had no trouble making friends, and they haven’t struggled elsewhere either.

The Cooley girls are both on pace to be PF salutatorians, and each scored 30 on the ACT test. But math is where they really excel.

“It’s just so much fun, it’s like whatever you find intriguing about a puzzle or a quiz, math’s got all of that,” Nia said.

“And it’s so dependable,” Nakia added. “Yet there are all different kinds of ways to do everything.”

“I just always loved math,” Nia said. “Math, for some reason, because it gets so complex, and then abstract and so three-dimensonal. No matter what you learn, there’s always something further. It’s kind of like a journey.”

“It’s so involved into everything,” Nakai said.

Both sisters plan on majoring in math at UT in the fall and hope to parlay that into a career teaching mathematics to others.

They’ve already got quite a head start on that.

The dynamic duo started an after-school peer tutoring program to help classmates with their studies.

“We asked voluntarily to work tutoring after school, before school or whatever was needed,” Nakai said. “Not because anyone said there were people having problems or trouble with it, we just wanted to do something. We both love math and helping and teaching. We want to teach.”

Now the school’s been awarded a $2,000 grant from Tanger Outlets to keep the program going after the girls leave the school.

With the help of credit recovery instructor Mitchell Whaley, who oversees the tutoring while his students work on credit recovery after school, a grant was written to help continue the program in the future.

“It’s not our personal grant, it’s for the school,” Nia said.

“So they can actually make (the tutoring) a foundational program.”

“So there actually will be a tutoring program at this school from now on,” Nakai said. “Nia and I graduating — we won’t be here to do it, so they want to get (software) programs and other ways to entice other people to volunteer for it.”

At UT, Nia will have a jumpstart on her sister, who took longer to secure the credentials for the school’s honors program.

“Lots of late night parties with calculus books,” Nia said.

“Nia went in the first time as a junior, and she got a 30 (on her ACT),” Nakai explained. “I was like, ‘You go girl!’ and then, what do I get? A 27. So I took it two more times to get up to 30.”

By the time she too scored a 30, it was too late for honors processing at UT, by six days.

But Nakai isn’t too stressed about it. She figures she’ll get her chance to enter the program at some point.

“The honors program is so demanding that some people can’t handle it or they get kicked out ... with all these spots opening, they have a (waiting) list,” which she’ll be on, she said.

The girls said they don’t regret a family decision to transplant to Tennessee four years ago, in fact, it’s been great for them.

“We were living outside of Houston at the time and Dad woke up one morning and said, ‘What do you think about going somewhere pretty, where they actually have trees and stuff?’ Nakai said. “I said, ‘OK!’

“We did a little bit of geography research and we found East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains. We were kind of drawn to the tourist idea of this place, there’s always something to do,” she continued. “We came here on a trial-vacation, and ended up enrolling in school two days later.”

“The teachers are more family-oriented (here),” Nia said.

“I feel like it’s more like a family, (with them) all caring about where you (will be) in the future. I feel the love linger out into the rest of my life, and it inspired me to be what I want to be and do what I want to do.”

One day the girls may be back in Pigeon Forge, again helping students improve their math skills — the next time as full-fledged teachers.

“I would teach here,” Nakai said.  “I would too, I love the school system here,” Nia said. “I believe we’ll be back.”