Beyond the Classroom: Homework Help Programs in South Seattle Libraries Cater to ELL Students

by Megan Saunders

On an unusually sunny early April day, the Rainier Beach branch of the Seattle Public Library is bustling with young children hauling large backpacks into a glass-paned room. There is homework to be done.

Every Monday through Wednesday, kindergarten through high school students gather at the Rainier Beach library for their Homework Help program from 4:30–6:30 p.m. Although this branch of SPL particularly serves younger, elementary-age students, tutors are provided for a multitude of subjects, including reading, math, and science.

Beyond their dedication to honing their classroom essentials, there is something unique about these kids. Of the students who attend Homework Help, 90 percent are learning English as a second language. For this reason, the tutors are trained specifically and extensively on practices of cultural competency, said Rainier Beach Teen Services Librarian Sunny Kim.

“Almost all of the trainings have some component of thinking about social equity,” said Kim. “This last time there was a training on implicit bias. There have been trainings about cultural competency while being a tutor. They have also done things about institutional racism. For me, the program really stands out because the emphasis is on making sure that our volunteers do their absolute best to serve our community.”

Homework Help has its basis in educational equity.

Tutor group picture by Megan Saunders
Elementary school students gather to complete homework in a study room at Homework Help with tutors on April 17 at the Seattle Public Library Rainier Beach branch. (Photo by Megan Saunders)

In 1997, the Douglass-Truth branch in Seattle’s Central District began offering Homework Help in an effort to provide extra assistance to students attending Title I schools. Since then, the program has flourished and expanded to multiple Seattle Public libraries, including South Seattle branches Rainier Beach, Columbia City, and Beacon Hill. Each of these locations offers similar programs at different times and days of the week.

“When the library started Homework Help, we intentionally targeted the library branches that were near schools that had a higher number of students needing free and reduced lunch because we understood that those families don’t have as many resources,” Kim said. “We wanted to sort of fill that gap as a library.”

Even when the kids do not have homework, they are engaged in other intellectually stimulating learning games.

“With a lot of the programs and the games, it’s fun learning. Which is really the best thing for children to help them to learn,” said Carlotta Walker, a library associate at Rainier Beach. “They’ll remember it better if it’s fun.”

In a survey completed by 243 Homework Help attendees for the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 65 percent answered the phrase, “Because of Homework Help…” with the phrase, “I understand my homework.” Nearly 60 percent answered “I am able to finish my homework,” and nearly 45 percent answered, “I get better grades.”

Math games picture by Megan Saunders
Fun math and science games are lined up for students in the room where Homework Help takes place at Rainier Beach library. Many of these are played by kids and their tutors when they do not have homework to complete. (Photo by Megan Saunders)

Although there are tangible results from the students’ perspectives, there is still work to be done.

Wendy Jans resides in Rainier Beach and has been a Homework Help tutor at the local library for almost two years. She works at UW College of Education, in a small program called Cultivate Learning where she is a coach support lead.

She places emphasis on awareness of cultural differences between tutors and students in working with primarily English language learner (ELL) students.

“I think one aspect of being culturally responsive is acknowledging what these children do know and how smart they are and what their strengths are and building on that,” she said.

Jans told the story of a young boy from Somalia who was frustrated he was reading English words wrong. She assured him that he was doing great, commenting that she herself is still learning the complexities of English and she’s known the language her entire life.

“I said ‘I speak English and I’ve learned English all my life,’” said Jans. “I said, ‘do you think I could read a Somali book?’ and he looked at me kind of funny and started laughing and said no!”

Despite the connections the tutors and students have, Jans recognizes there is a need for tutors to mirror the cultures and backgrounds of the children they serve.

Wendy Jans and students pic by Megan Saunders
Wendy Jans (right) looks over the math homework of Najma Abdi, who is in attendance of Homework Help with her sister Nawal (front). Jans says although she currently volunteers once a week, she want to invest more time at the Rainier Beach branch to further strengthen her connections to the students. (Photo by Megan Saunders)

“There are tutors of color and I’ve worked with some of them but I don’t think there are enough representative of the families that we are serving in this community,” she said. “I can build relationships by being culturally responsive but I’m still a white woman.”

Kim said all branches, specifically their own, are always looking for tutors, especially those that live in and reflect the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods.

You can find out more about Homework Help here.

Sunny Kim, Teen Services Librarian at Rainier Beach library, talks about Homework Help from Megan Saunders on Vimeo.