At a small table between stacks of paperbacks and beneath an enormous map of the world in Minneapolis’ Franklin Library, fifth grader Bintou Dibba concentrates on her homework for the next day. Homework Hub volunteer tutor Peg Hoff, newly semi-retired from 34 years as an educator with the Burnsville School District, leans in to help Dibba with questions about story problems and long division.
“My parents drop me off because they go downstairs to get help too,” Dibba explains about the routine she’s followed two days a week for two years. While she and two younger brothers get help with their homework, play games on the library’s computers and read books, their parents visit the Franklin Learning Center. Resources for adults include learning English, getting citizenship, finding work and continuing education. After 4 p.m. the Franklin Learning Center becomes Hennepin County’s busiest Homework Hub, packed with a diverse group of local teens looking for help and socializing.
After school and into the evening at nine Hennepin County Library Homework Hubs and six St. Paul Public Library Homework Centers, students and families can find a quiet place to study, access to library computers, some school supplies and caring volunteers like Hoff to help answer their questions. “I think maybe half of the students are looking for math help,” said Thorin Tatge, the lead tutor who oversees the program at Franklin Library. “But really all subjects are needed – science, history, essays and reading comprehension, projects and sometimes they just need help using the computer.”
Homework Help Resources:
Hennepin County Homework Hubs
St. Paul Public Library Homework Centers
More tutors are always needed. Want to volunteer?
At St. Paul’s busiest Homework Center, The S.W.A.M.P. (Student Work and Mentoring Place) in the Rondo Community Outreach Library, there are 18 computers beneath a large sign warning that they are for academic use only. “In the regular library the kids have to wait in the normal line to get on, they can just hop on a computer in the homework center,” said Max Bielenberg, AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and Information Literacy Coordinator for The S.W.A.M.P. “The popularity of the Homework Center among certain students is linked to there is no computer or just one computer for several people at home, or maybe the connection is slow and we also do offer free printing for school related stuff.”
While not all locations offer free printing, each homework help location has additional resources on hand to help students complete their assignments. The most common items are graphing and notebook paper, colored pencils, markers, scissors and graphing calculators. “But I think the most important thing we give out, and it’s probably the cheapest, is an adult who will listen and sit there with them and help them,” said Rondo Librarian Alice Navy.
“About 70 percent of the students that come to the library for homework assistance do not speak English at home,” said Barb McKenzie, volunteer and internship coordinator for Hennepin County Libraries. For families struggling to interpret homework questions, the help library programs provide can mean as much to parents as it does to their children.
“We had a mother who would bring in her three sons nightly to do their homework,” recalls Johanna Gennett, youth services librarian at Franklin Library. “At the end of the school year she said to me, ‘you know I used to cry every night trying to help my sons with their homework, it was such a relief to have this service available that I could bring them to.'”
Funding for the St. Paul Homework Centers, according to Navy, is “a partnership between the city and the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.” The city budget includes the service awards of at least two AmeriCorps VISTAs who work as center coordinators and volunteer recruiters. The program started in January of 2002 at the former Lexington library.
The Hennepin County program is funded through The Library Foundation of Hennepin County. “It’s funded through a lot of grants but they are the ones that coordinate all the fundraising efforts for us,” explained librarian Maggie Snow. In 1992, Minneapolis city libraries started the Homework Helper program. When the Minneapolis libraries merged with Hennepin County in 2008, Snow said, they realized that they couldn’t grow the program if they continued to have paid tutors. The decision was made to reduce the number of hours the homework help is available and the paid employees to one coordinator for most locations and supplement with more volunteers.
“The reality is that we used to be able to offer more programming,” said Christie Mulligan, Teen Services Librarian at Minneapolis Central Library. “We are all in an environment where we can’t do as much as we used to be able to do. But, I think for us it’s really critical that we do these things well. We create that environment where they know they can come into the library, they can access the computer, they can get homework support. We know we do that well and that’s really what we’re focused on right now.”
While funding pays for some coordinating staff and homework center supplies, there is heavy reliance on volunteers to keep the programs going. Current volunteers include business professionals, educators, retirees with many backgrounds, college students, service learning or work-study participants and a few high school students.
“We need about 100 people to provide this program to the community, in the locations that we are at, for every semester,” McKenzie said. “We ask for a two hour commitment, once a week, on the same day at the same location for a semester, which is generally about 14 weeks.”
After applying, volunteers get interviewed and have background checks before receiving a program orientation. “We try to do a monthly program of some sort of training for them,” Snow said. “It’s not required training but many of them do take advantage of it. The workshops range from introduction to Somali culture to working with English language learners. In November we’ll have a math refresher. We’ve given workshops on being a mentor, on library databases and websites, anything that might help them help the students they’re working with.”
But a completed assignment for tomorrow is not the only thing students take away from the homework help locations. “Hopefully their academic self confidence is improving because the tutor isn’t just giving them skills for that worksheet but giving them a way to look at homework in general and giving them math skills or writing skills that they’re going to take with them to their next assignment,” Bielenberg said.
At Franklin Library, “some of the students who get the most from the program like to give back,” Tatge said, by helping others who have come in for help with something they understand and feel confident about. “They have a sense of responsibility to the younger kids in the community and I think the program serves as a sort of role model concept for them too. It’s good to help those who need it.”