Homework House Works

by Jane Morrissey, S.S.J. and Maureen Broughan, S.S.J.

Children who come to the Homework House after-school tutoring program often take their tutors by surprise. One day, eleven-year-old Lily interrupted Sister Maureen’s diligent attempts to focus her on the multiplication tables with an exclamation point. “Thank God for Martin Luther King!” When asked what brought her to her proclamation, she explained patiently, “Without him we’d all be in the back of the bus.”

Since we Sisters of Saint Joseph of Springfield started our Homework House program in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on the first day of February in 2006, we never know what the children will reveal to any of us who comes to help them. There’s an unexpected hug, a moment of real clarity, accelerated interest in a subject area that has presented difficulty or met with downright resistance. What we do know is both simple and remarkable.

For two hours a day, four days a week, nearly ninety students from Holyoke elementary schools spend two additional hours on schoolwork. The children come either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, with their gifts and their struggles, for free individualized tutoring. They do their homework; they read; they do arithmetic; they have a snack; they play word or math games.

“The Forgotten Ones”

How did Homework House arrive in Holyoke? A 2004 newspaper insert, “Los Olvidados” (The Forgotten Ones), alerted and sensitized us to some of the city’s educational needs. About the same time we heard of a place called Homework House in California. It seemed the right fit for a real need.

Children helped by young adult tutors often experience new confidence, self-esteem, and better grades.

As Roger Wilkins, professor of history and American culture at George Mason University notes, “just as legal segregation in the South was a huge national horror hidden in plain view, so too the massive desolation of the intellect and spirits and the human futures of these millions of young people in their neighborhoods of poverty is yet another national horror hidden in plain view; and it is so enormous and it has its ganglia implanted so profoundly in the culture as we know it that we’re going to have to build another movement if we hope to make it visible.” Why not join the Homework House movement? It was already going where we hoped to go.

In 1992, Barbara Abouchar, a retired schoolteacher, had opened the first Homework House in Orange, CA. She designed the program for poor neighborhoods, for children at-risk simply because their families are poor. When we got in touch with the Homework House Board in January 2005, they were willing to take us under their wing. We refreshed our Spanish skills and observed what was happening at the Homework House sites in California.

Our Homework House of Hermano Pedro was the fifteenth site, and the first in the eastern United States. (Since that time we have become incorporated as an independent nonprofit chapter.) At Immaculate Conception Parish House we began with two tutors from the Elms College and two students from the Flats, one of Holyoke’s poorest sections. Homework House grew slowly and steadily that spring. In our pilot phase, fifteen tutors eventually helped twenty students. The parish’s free hospitality and the financial support of the Sisters of Saint Joseph Apostolic Ministry Fund kept our doors open.

Bonding with tutors

At the end of the school year, our success stories included Thomas, a sixth-grader who came to Homework House in March with only Ds and Fs on his report card, and finished the school year with one A, two Bs, and a C. Elizabeth and Ivelis, sixthgraders seemingly disinterested in the assigned science fair project, completed it. Their second project of the semester was held up to the class as the model project. They stood tall when they reported to us the two A’s on their projects and 100% on their oral presentation. Christian, a third-grader, got his first A ever on his June book report. For these four participants, such achievements were tantamount to graduation summa cum laude. In this pilot phase we could see how bonding with tutors was making an enormous difference in the children’s achievements and self-esteem.

Studying together, children and tutors enrich each other.

In September 2006, with the enthusiastic support and assistance of principal Hilary Russell and her staff at Lawrence School, we arrived in Churchill, another Latino poor neighborhood. We opened this second site in the under-utilized classrooms with boarded-up windows of the old school annex in Guadalupe Parish where we could accommodate seventy students. Now the sun shines in.

Over the past two years, our student numbers rose to over 120 and our volunteer tutors were more than 90. Our tutors come from the National Honor Societies at Holyoke High, St. Mary High, and Holyoke Catholic High. Others belong to the Elms, Holyoke Community, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst College and the Commonwealth College at the University of Massachusetts. Dedicated adult tutors come, many of them retired teachers.

They never stop coming

The children never stop coming, the vast majority from the Flats and Churchill, Latino neighborhoods where 48% of the families live below the poverty line and 39% live in shelters, foster care, or multiple family settings. In one neighborhood, the rate of entrenched poverty exceeds that in depressed neighborhoods of New Orleans after Katrina.

Our program is now funded through many private foundations and public grants, as well as the Sisters of St. Joseph from Springfield, Orange, and Albany. We receive additional help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Holyoke’s Community Development Block Grant, our diocesan Annual Catholic Appeal, and a good number of family and community foundations. Friends see what we are doing and make donations. Pastors and parishioners welcome us into donated space. Saint Paul Episcopal Church gave us materials and study tables for our Churchill site. Project Bread gave us a one-time grant for new furniture and provides daily snacks through the Holyoke School System.

The founder visits

This past summer, the founder of Homework House in California took us by surprise, just as our children do. She stopped by while traveling cross-country with her family. We shared stories of the hundreds of people who have worked with us. She confirmed our experience and mission, “This is exactly how I imagined Homework House should be.” Her parting words assured us, “This visit is the best part of our cross-country trip.”

Sisters Maureen (left) and Jane (right) joyfully welcome Barbara Abouchar to Holyoke visit.
The founder of Homework House in California died unexpectedly a few weeks later.

A few weeks after returning to California, Barbara called to say that, after seeing pictures and hearing stories of their Holyoke site, their Board of Trustees began talking about spreading from more affluent southern California into inner-city Los Angeles.

A week or so later, we received another call with the unexpected news that Barbara was on life support. Two days later she died. Barbara’s assistant director Marcia Marcinko wrote that she died knowing that her vision of an after-school program for poor children was realized in Holyoke. The original Homework House writes on its website: “For the last 16 years Barbara has carried on her mission to help at-risk youth achieve academic success through Homework House... She was able to complete her journey with Homework House when just a few weeks ago, she took a crosscountry trip with her family to see our Homework House Program in Holyoke, Massachusetts. This was truly her dream that had come full circle.”

Sisters Jane Morrissey, SSJ and Maureen Broughan, SSJ are members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, MA, and Co-Founders and Co-Directors of Homework House INC. More information is available at www.homeworkhouseholyoke.org