Volunteer tutoring service helps homeless students

Even though Arayshawne, an eighth-grader, lives in a Chicago homeless shelter, he's able to keep up with his school work, thanks to volunteers from a public school program who tutor homeless students.

Volunteers from the HOPES program spend 1-1/2 hours a week tutoring students like Arayshawne at shelters.

When asked about his favorite part of the tutoring program Arayshawne says, "Getting help with my homework," and "painting the mural over the summer."

HOPES (Heightening Opportunity and Potential for Educational Success) currently operate at six shelters in the Chicago area. At least twice a week, volunteer tutors spend about two hours with students, assisting with homework, reading together and talking.

"We ask that the volunteers commit to at least one day for the whole semester because the kids get attached," says Pat Rivera, Chicago Public Schools Homeless Education program manager.

While many of the volunteers are college students, the program also has a Sunday night tutoring session, which attracts tutors who work full-time.

All tutors are required to participate in a training program but no specific degree or background is required, organizers say.

Jordan Peshke, a HOPES tutor and an elementary education major at Roosevelt University, sees the difference the program can make.

"I remember one kid last semester who never wanted to sit still and do his work," Peshke says. But, Peshke recalls, after meeting twice a week for the semester, "His attitude changed. His focus improved."

Some 30,000 people are homeless in Chicago throughout the course of a year, according to estimates, and a third of those people are children.

CPS was unable to immediately provide information on the number of homeless children its serves because the number is fluid. However, officials say most of the students in the program are elementary school age, live at shelters with their families and sometimes leave the HOPES program when their families have found housing or have moved on to another shelter.

"It's a forgotten population,"says Lynn Gerbec, HOPES shelter coordinator.
"Our program provides stability.  They can come to a safe space...Not to demean their situation, but they're not homeless first, they're kids first."

When school breaks for the summer, HOPES continues with a summer program that includes field trips to museums, the aquarium, the zoo and projects such as the mural painted in the shelter where Arayshawne stays.

An initiative of the Chicago Public Schools Homeless Education Program, HOPES is run by Pat Rivera and her team of 12 AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, who in turn recruit, train and rely on the approximately 170 volunteer tutors.

HOPES was created in 2006 and initially served two shelters and Rivera's staff consisted of six VISTA volunteers. Now, the program operates at six shelters and the number of VISTA volunteers has increased to 12, with plans to expand to more shelters next year.

"We're growing the program to have the resource for children.  At some point, we might have fewer shelters but I'm afraid homelessness has been with us a long time and we're not worried about not having work," Rivera said.

Still, Rivera and her VISTA volunteers know that they cannot grow without more tutor volunteers.

"We're discussing expanding to new shelters or increasing the number of days the tutors are there or both," Gerbec says.  "[But] I wish HOPES was a name people knew. It would increase our volunteer base."

HOPES staff, together with the tutors, gauge the effectiveness of the tutoring for each student and make changes as necessary. Feedback from students' teachers are not currently part of the program because of the privacy issues in revealing that a student is homeless.

However, parents and shelter staff provide some feedback.

Sideeka Boyer, HOPES shelter coordinator, recalls one mother who noticed that her children "want to read on their own now."

Gwen Fowler, Director of the Maria Shelter in Englewood says, "We see a lot of growth academically.  [The kids] triumphantly bring me their report cards.  We try to help them understand that the reward is the grade itself."

Another child being tutored by HOPES, Britney, a third-grader, whose favorite thing about the tutoring program is getting stickers, says she wants to be a nurse when she grows up.

Being in a shelter does not limit her ability to dream.

When asked about a picture she painted of a figure with long hair and a red house, she replies "That's me and that's my house, when I'm older."