Education after the school bell rings: libraries lend help with homework difficulties
Updated: May 26
Kelli Roads wakes her three children up every morning before 7:30. She gets them dressed one by one. She sits them down for a quick breakfast before shipping them off to school. Before she knows it, 2 p.m. rolls around, and it's time to pick the kids up after a long day of learning.
The family rushes to weekly afternoon commitments of soccer and karate, and then the evening activities follow. It’s safe to say that this mom’s day is completely maxed out.
Despite all the obligations she hopes to accomplish, Roads always makes time in her ever-growing agenda for a special appointment with her children. Her parental promise? Schedule “homework time” with her kids for at least an hour each day.
The kids’ homework is one of Roads’ top priorities. While this personal mindset and the corresponding practices have proven to be beneficial to the Roads household, a vast amount of American families and their school-age children lack the time and resources to imitate it.
A 2015 U.S. Census of school-aged students exposed a shocking revelation to the public: Approximately 15% of students across the nation, from kindergartners to high school seniors, struggle to complete their homework assignments on a daily basis. The Pew Research Center found that “1 in 5 children have been reported to lack high speed internet within their own household.”
As an educator for the last 14 years, Roads worked hands-on with elementary school children and observed the variety of ways they learn and grow. Children tend to flourish when they receive the proper tools to succeed like high-speed internet, school supplies and dedicated time with their teachers. Take those resources away, and the consequences typically fall in line with the results of the U.S. Census.
Roads says having an adult physically assist students with their homework could be as beneficial, if not more so, than having a brand new laptop or iPad by the student’s side.
“As a teacher, we used to call it the 'magic voice,’” Roads said. “A kid can read it, but if they hear you say it -- a teacher, parent, friend or even themselves -- sometimes out loud, there is something magical about it. It is easier for them to understand."
While parental assistance can be groundbreaking for children struggling with homework, it only solves part of the problem. A recent federal survey reveals that 70% of American teachers assign technologically-related homework assignments. If households lacks the necessary resources to complete those assignments, students will continue to struggle.
Identified by researchers as the "digital divide," the technological breach between in-school education and homework is one that many resource-deprived students cannot overcome on their own.
Fortunately, several libraries in West Palm Beach, Florida, have taken the initiative to bridge this gap.
The Mandel Public Library targets many homework gap issues by promoting free, hands-on assistance. In addition to providing many of the resources a majority of students may lack, such as updated technology and an expansive collection of literature, the city library established a strategic plan to aid students of all ages with their homework difficulties.
Launched in 2010, Homework Help Centers are group-style tutoring programs intended to assist students K-12 with school-affiliated assignments. Organized by the institution's library assistants and coordinators, the Mandel Public Library arranged for paid educators to provide additional teaching to participating students after school.
Jennifer McQuown, Mandel's Youth Services Manager, has worked firsthand with the programs since their initial proposition in late 2009. McQuown emphasized how the program's "tiered approach" eliminates the "fine structure" of a stereotypical library setting.
"We try to look at the community holistically as a whole," McQuown said. "And say, 'What does our community need?’"
The centers are categorized into two groups on different floors of the massive library: tutoring designated for middle-to-high school-aged students occurs on the second floor, while homework assistance aimed toward elementary-aged children takes place on the third floor.
Open from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, the decade-old program has received accolades from parents and students alike.
Located about 35 minutes away in the heart of Wellington, Florida, Yvonne Cabrera and her son 6-year-old son Joseph have participated in the Homework Help Centers’ programs every Monday since the school year began. Joseph is a kindergarten student at St. Ann's Catholic School in West Palm Beach. On Mondays, Cabrera stays in West Palm Beach instead of trying to beat the rush hour traffic so they can participate in the Homework Help Centers.
Cabrera revealed that her son’s private school offers a tutoring program for enrolled students and their families. The only issue? It's not free.
She also affirmed that the Wellington library system does not have a free tutoring-style program like the Homework Help Centers, a noticeable contrast to Mandel's holistic approach.
Even though parents like Roads and Cabrera are willing to drive their kids to and from the library every week, there's still many low-income families who cannot access reliable transportation for their children. McQuown admitted the one problem of the Homework Help Centers is that the Mandel Public Library doesn't offer transportation for students who can't find rides to downtown West Palm Beach.
If given the additional funding, McQuown emphasized how they'd organize a "mobile homework help center" in a van or bus. A paid educator would drive the vehicle to parts of the community and bring resources to the students who can’t access the program.
The Youth Services Manager says this would be the next major goal of Mandel's tutoring programs because it would be more secure than previous attempts to aid in transportation, such as giving bus passes to students. While the passes allowed students to get to the city library, there was no way for the program coordinators to confirm when or where the child was using the pass, or if they arrived at the library safely. Because Mandel's programs are entirely donation-based, it’s possible that plans for a "homework bus" will be curated in the coming years.
The seven neighboring branches of the Martin County Library System have also initiated free tutoring assistance to the county's young students. Similar to Mandel’s Homework Help Centers, the library coordinators of Martin County try to provide homework assistance to students in their area.
Unlike the employed tutors of West Palm Beach's city library, Martin County's homework assistance programs are entirely volunteer based. A willing adult with a basic understanding of primary education skills is more than welcome to serve as a library tutor, in contrast to the employment requirements of Mandel's programs.
Additionally, the complimentary service has been initiated as private, one-on-one tutoring sessions that must be scheduled. If a student doesn’t make an appointment, they’re not given access to time with a homework tutor.
Rebecca Scheelk, a Homework Helper Coordinator at the Martin County Library System, recently observed the group dynamics of Mandel's Homework Help Centers in the hopes of modeling Martin County's tutoring program after it.
"My passion is like [McQuown’s]," said Scheelk. "It's all about literacy and making sure kids are learning how to learn."
After shadowing McQuown for a day, Scheelk was impressed by Mandel's uniquely holistic approach. Scheelk wants to slowly transform her local library's private tutoring system into a public learning program.
Contrary to both Mandel and Martin County's physical, one-on-one tutoring programs, the 17 library branches of Palm Beach County have opted for an accessible educational route void of transportation and size issues.
Partnering with Tutor.com, the PCB libraries incorporated the Live Homework Help program, an online alternative to a conventional in-person tutoring session. The many levels of the program are available to the public completely free of charge. All you need is a library card and a desire to learn.
While online-tutoring may raise some skepticism, the PCB Branch supports their previous success rates with consistent vendor's reports of the last two years, according to findings from the Pew Research Center. Each report highlights the age percentage of the program's users, whether their grades have increased or decreased and the overall satisfaction of the website's users.
Classified as Live Homework Help, the PBC library website provides a direct outlet for free
access to Tutor.com, a tutoring platform provided by The Princeton Review. When students log onto the website with their library card number, they’re immediately directed to the homepage where they can select the type of homework assistance they need. Once they choose a subject, students are partnered with a professional tutor in an "online classroom" where the pair can access the program's tech-savvy features.
During a session, students can connect with their tutor via phone call or audio chat in the classroom. Students has approximately 20 minutes of homework help. If they find they need more time, they must restart the session and use a different tutor. Since the program's creation in 1998 by George Cigale, 96% of students' grades increased and over 14 million homework sessions were overseen.
In addition to granting access to time with teachers and professors, the students participating can also pinch their precious pennies. If a student wanted to use the resources of Tutor.com outside of Palm Beach County's portal, they would have to pay full price for the tutoring services.
Standard pricing is arranged based on the number of tutoring hours a student needs per month. One hour of tutoring per month through Tutor.com costs $39.99, and two hours per month cost $79.99. If a student needs three hours of service, they would be granted a discounted rate of $114.99 per month. All standard fees administered by the program are waived through Palm Beach County’s portal.
While the Palm Beach County library systems' technological approach shows significant success rates by providing local students with free access to a program such as Tutor.com, it’s still not able to aid the 15% of students lacking high-speed internet or technological resources.
Given the strategic organization and varying success rates of the alternative tutoring programs, each of the participating libraries have chosen to specifically acknowledge different aspects of the "homework gap." Some students don’t have reliable high-speed internet and technological tools in their household, an issue targeted by Mandel and Martin County library systems. For others, the lack of dependable transportation to their local libraries is countered by Palm Beach County's online alternative.
While there are still some holes affecting each of the contrasting tutoring strategies, the local library systems around West Palm Beach plan to adapt to the challenges society throws at them and continue to administer the services they know are making an impact.
By Brenna Brown