Introduction and Background:

Homework assistance centers serve many purposes: they assist patrons that need additional educational support; they provide parents and students with a safe and stable after-school environment; and they serve the community by keeping youth from engaging unwanted, dangerous, or illegal behaviors.

"At the very least, a library's homework help center offers kids a designated place to go after school where they can get help with their classwork. At its best, the program offers positive human interaction and scholastic support that might otherwise be missing from the youngster's life" (Mediavilla, 2001).

Historically, homework assistance centers have not been popular among librarians. In the 1950s and 60s, the "baby boom" brought students to the public libraries in droves and caused librarians to resent the overpopulation of their facilities. Mediavilla refers to this as the "student problem"; this mass inundation of students in libraries caused librarians to limit after-school programming and availability of their facilities (Mediavila, 2001). In 1992, "the Carnegie Council published a report revealing that the most dangerous time of the day for youth is the three hours following school. During this period, kids are more susceptible to negative peer pressure and illegal activities" (Mediavilla, 2001). After the release of this report and many others like it, many American public libraries led the charge in creating after-school activities that targeted youth. Specifically, they developed homework assistance centers in an effort to support the youth and the communities they served.

Who do homework assistance centers serve?

The center or program can help any student, but traditionally programs are designed to target "at-risk" youth as identified in reports like the 1992 Carnegie report and the 2000 federal study Working for Children: Safe and Smart After-School Programs. These youth include students "left alone when school ends" (i.e. the traditional "latchkey" kids) as well as other students having trouble with academics or staying in school (Mediavilla, 2001). Additionally, home-schooled students may use your homework center, as well as students working towards a GED (Brannan, 2011).

What resources do we need to start a homework assistance center?

First and foremost, the center needs people to teach/tutor the students. The library may be able to budget some staff time for reference librarians or youth services/teen librarians to assist the center, but they will need support from tutors, educators, or teen mentors. Many centers use older teens for tutoring or mentoring younger preteens in exchange for work/study or volunteer hours. The young people who come to the center may need help outside of academic tutoring as well; "at the East Palo Alto (Calif.) Public Library, tutors and students openly discuss contemporary issues such as gang violence and drugs. In neighborhoods where few positive role models exist, homework helpers offer kids hope and encouragement" (Mediavilla, 2001).

Second, your center needs reference materials. When selecting resources, your library should consider (Brannon, 2011):
  • To what age levels, or grade-levels, will your center cater?
  • With what subject areas of homework will the center help?
  • Do you have physical space for many materials? Or should you select electronic resources?
  • Did you remember all of the miscellaneous things that help finish homework?
  • Will you have staff available for bibliographic instruction?
  • What can you afford?

Involving teens in the planning process will help ensure a successful program and teen space. Ask teens what materials they might need, what subjects they need help in (or can teach), what homework they are used to being assigned, etc. Also remember when choosing (or designing) space for your center that homework help will most likely not be solitary or silent; plan for group work, talking and socializing, collaboration, movement, and possibly even snacks. Some homework centers focus on specific subjects, and most include substantial writing help and support; your reference materials should include general resources, subject-specific resources, and external resources like writing, research, and citation guides. Try to include college prep resources like college guides, community college/vocational school resources, scholarship directories, and SAT/ACT prep materials as well (Brannon, 2011).

Do homework assistance centers partner with other organizations?

Many homework assistance centers partner with community organizations like Boys and Girls clubs, schools, churches, Friends of the Library, etc. for help both in reaching out to young people to attend the center and for assistance staffing the center (Brannon, 2011). Homework assistance centers can (and are) staffed by adult volunteers, teen peer tutors, library staff, or a combination of all of these.

How do we promote/advertise our homework assistance center?

First, think about who your "customers" are and who you're trying to reach. Students and librarians may be your first thoughts, but don't forget parents, school personnel, and other community leaders who could help publicize your center or partner with you in providing services. In addition to using traditional marketing like flyers, brochures, and press releases in local businesses and bulletin boards, consider promoting the center online, possibly through email, social media, the teen services blog, the library website, etc. Try to choose publicity methods that are most effective in reaching your target audience, not just the "newest and coolest" digital media (Adams, 2010).

Tips for a Successful Homework Help Center

Assess student needs. Whether creating a homework help center for a school or public library, it is important to consider hours of operation, pay for tutors, the amount of students served, and the demographics of schools in the area among many other factors. One should also take into account that low-income students are less likely than their counterparts to receive homework help and have computers at home. Parents often work full-time or have limited academic or English skills (Mediavilla, 2003). In addition, become familiar with the tests taken and standards that have to be met by students. Ask teachers, school librarians, and parents about such standards and the homework that is typically assigned, especially for “basic subject areas: math, science, writing, history, and languages” (Brannon & Hildreth, 2011). With this information, determine the resources and materials needed for a more productive center, such as reference materials, school-subject study guides, electronic resources, designated computers, and school supplies.

Write grants. Some libraries may not have all of the funds needed to support an ideal program, however, many organizations, chain stores, and other businesses do. Prepare a proposal or letter detailing the program, leaders involved, and students who will benefit. It would also be important to note goals and expected outcomes. Then, based on an evaluation of the resources and materials needed, develop a budget that you can include in the correspondence.

Designate space(s). Reserve rooms or youth services areas for homework assistance and study time. Make sure ample, comfortable seating as well as tables, shelving, and electrical outlets are available for individuals and groups (Cohen, 2009). It may be best to separate youth by grade level or by the school subject they are working on. If homework help is offered online, reserve computers for that purpose. In addition, involve children and teens in the planning process (Brannon & Hildreth, 2011).

Partner with local schools and community organizations. “Of course there's no set formula to a successful homework center; each community must tailor a program to meet its specific needs. But one thing is for sure: good working relationships with local schools can lead to effective homework centers” (Mediavilla, 2003). High school or college students, parents, retired teachers or professionals, and trained tutors from organizations such as America Reads may be able to provide assistance to students needing homework help. Ideally, the homework helpers are role models who assist youth in gaining self-esteem and interpersonal skills. Providing adequate leaders is said to be the most important factor in developing a successful center (Mediavilla, 2003).

Set a schedule. Determine how you will run your program within the allotted hours of operation. You especially may want to have a more structured program if you are serving many children. Supervision and structure helps to ensure safety and organization that will allow the program to run smoothly (Cosden, Morrison, Albanese, & Macias, 2001). A schedule of homework time followed by reading and then educational activities may be a good start (Huffman & Rua, 2008, p. 25).

Market the program. Building relationships with local schools and teachers is key to reaching students. “Your publicity campaign should target parents, teachers, volunteers, funding agencies, and governing bodies, as well as students. Hold a ‘grand opening’ to mark the arrival of the homework center or hold an open house. Your patrons and the local media are bound to notice the attention” (Mediavilla, 2003). Also, in addition to using traditional printed marketing materials such as flyers, take advantage of blogs, social networking, and even school newsletters and websites to spread the word (Adams 2010).

Be innovative. For many children, the homework help center may be an alternative to other afterschool activities, so make it fun. Within the last hour, offer educational games or other fun activities such as videogame and board game competitions that will further motivate the youth to complete their homework. Think about activities that will keep them coming back. Home-schooled children and those pursuing their GED should also be kept in mind. Also, if the budget is low or if there is a lack of space available, consider a virtual homework help center (Brannon & Hildreth, 2011).

Track outcomes. Measure the effectiveness of the program from the start. Ask questions in person and use surveys to acquire feedback from students, parents, and tutors. Informal data may work for a time for in-house evaluations, however, more empirical data will help to secure more grant funding (Huffman & Rua, 2008, p. 26).


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