Once a week after school, students and staff members from Glacier Edge Elementary School and volunteers pack the community room at Nakoma Heights Apartments in Fitchburg.
The students get help with their homework. It’s tight but the room has been updated since the homework club started. The cozy spot features knotty pine siding, exposed beams and a floor-to-ceiling stone wall with a fireplace. There is no Wi-Fi, so Jennifer Schultz, school counselor at Glacier Edge, brings her own mobile hotspot.
But the best part is the location is within walking distance from where the students and their families live.
“It’s a fairly small space but has been instrumental in the school being able to have a connection with the community that is separated by about five miles of highway,” Schultz said.
The idea for the homework club came up at a parent group called Correr la Voz, or “word of mouth,” that Schultz runs in Spanish with interpretation available for English speakers. A parent pointed out at a meeting that the school and parents share a responsibility to increase involvement.
The club is officially called Tarea — the Spanish word for “homework” — but it also stands for Teaching And Reaching Every Area.
Schultz said the parents can more easily pop into the community room, which helps with the “one quick question” — the ability to ask a simple question, which parents who live near the school are able to do when they pick up their children. She also likes the chance for students to see her in the community.
“It helps me finish my homework on time,” fifth-grader Bryan Arroyo said. “They’re always with us in case we need help.”
Fourth-grader Rubi Tecuatl Xelhua said she likes that she can ask questions in either Spanish or English.
“It’s more quiet,” Rubi said. “You can really focus on your homework.”
Fourth-grader Sandra Ocotl said she appreciates the help with homework.
“If I don’t understand it, they can help me,” she said.
The sessions are 50 minutes long, and the students who come are generally second- through fifth-graders. Several staff members and about three teenagers who volunteer as tutors are typically on hand. The teens earn hours toward the Silver Cord program, which recognizes community service and volunteerism. They often know many of the students attending and they don’t need transportation to volunteer because they live in Nakoma Heights Apartments or nearby.
Katie Martinez-Lagunas, a junior at Verona High School, said the program was just beginning when she was in elementary school.
“It really would have helped me understand material better and be more confident in my learning,” Martinez-Lagunas said.
Since her generation will be the first to attend college in her family, Martinez-Lagunas knows the struggles and is also aware that some of the students have migrant parents, she said.
“There is a bigger kind of purpose for why I do this weekly,” she said. “In a way, I’m helping them and also their parents. I’ve just been through all of this.”
Senior Elizabeth Varela-Montes said she likes being a role model and being able to communicate with the younger students.
“So many kids are quite shy,” said Varela-Montes, who inspired her 11th-grade sister, Leticia, to become a volunteer.
Molly Merrill, who is in her first year as a regular teacher at Glacier Edge, said she likes having a setting that’s more relaxed than at school. She said the homework club can help with relationship-building and she plays math games with the students, who then can help others in the classroom where she teaches fourth-graders.
“It’s nice to have these kids consistently done with their homework,” she said.