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Senior Corps-RSVP member CHiL tutors help at-risk students get ahead

2017 September 28
by HandsOn Suburban Chicago

It’s 3:30 in the afternoon on a typical day at a middle school in Wheeling. Most kids are heading for the bus to get home, rummage through the fridge for snacks or flop onto the couch to play video games. Or soccer practice. Or chess club. Few really feel like doing more math or English.

And yet, two afternoons a week, the students who are struggling to keep up in their classes, or feel disconnected from the school population because their English is less than perfect, stay for nearly two more hours.

Rose Johnson

Why? Because Senior Corps-RSVP members like Rose Johnson and Mike Mokhtarian are there. For the next hour and a half, these tutors will guide them through the complexities of math or grammar and later, relax with a board game or hang out and watch their students at soccer or basketball practice. Sometimes they just listen whenever the kids feel the need to talk through issues.

Mike Mokhtarian


Rose and Mike are two of the 15 Senior Corps-RSVP members that are part of CHiL, which stands for Cooper, Holmes and London Middle Schools. Holmes and London are part of Community Consolidated School District 21 based in Wheeling while Cooper is in Buffalo Grove.

CHiL targets academically at-risk students. Although the program mainly serves students from households where English is not the primary language, English-only students also attend and benefit. The concept of an after school program started 22 years ago at Robert Frost Elementary School as a gang preventative. Gregg Crocker, Family Learning Coordinator for District 21, and the school district’s current contact person for CHiL, said the district had looked at research on the reason for gangs in the area.

“One was academic failure,” he explained. “The other-no positive connection with other adults.”

Then, seven years ago, HandsOn Suburban Chicago and Senior Corps-RSVP met with Gregg Crocker and School District 21 staff members and developed the CHiL program to address the issues of academic failure and the need to provide positive adult connection with the students.  HOSC staff and Senior Corps-RSVP members have remained an active partner in expanding the program to include the three schools and provide tutors/mentors to fill this vital need.

In fact, School District 21 recently presented an award to HOSC “in recognition of many years of service to students and the Community Consolidated School District 21 Community.”

A typical schedule for volunteers includes one hour of tutoring and one half-hour of mentoring one or two days a week (Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday) from 3:30 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Sessions open with snacks, because, as we all know, it’s not easy for students to think clearly on an empty stomach.

Rose, whose background includes twenty-five years in the Youth Services Department at Indian Trails Public Library, works with four or five students at a time at London School, where she finds the staff friendly and welcoming. Students start out by completing homework or other assignments for the first hour. After she checks their work or gives help where they need it-such as reading essays for grammatical errors-she allows time for playing games, reading, talking to friends.

Rose loves the kids and knows many through the library or her neighborhood. She recalls one boy who seemed shy at first and usually came in with a large amount of homework. He was easily distracted, so she kept refocusing him, especially when he’d talk about a video game he played at home. Whenever she redirected him, he appreciated her efforts and even apologized for getting distracted.

“Towards the end of the year, I do see kids coming with less homework,” she said. “Which means they are doing it at home and handing it in on time.”

Generally, tutors work with multiple students. On a good day, it’s one tutor for two students, although CHiL is working toward a one-on-one ratio. The students are shown how to take responsibility for their work. It’s a gradual process, but most important, they need enough motivation to stay in the program. Sessions are set up so students are always actively engaged, meaning there is no movie or TV watching during the post-studying period. Tutors usually will play strategy games with the kids, or in some cases, watch them play soccer or basketball.

While a number of tutors have a history of teaching or working with children, a background in education is not a requirement for the CHiL program. Mike, a retired engineer who has volunteered at London and Holmes schools, has enjoyed connecting with young people while tutoring them in math or playing board games during the “free time.” He acknowledges that it took some effort to keep the students on task. Yet, in his group of three or four students there were those who took their work seriously. He recalled speaking with one boy about his future plans. 

“The boy’s father worked in a gas station,” he said. “He thought he would be like his father. I talked to him about college, and he could make more money with a college education. Later, a teacher told me I had succeeded in convincing him to think about college.”

In terms of CHiL’s success, the numbers tell the story. There are a total of 132 students in the CHiL Program in all three schools. On tutoring days, 98 percent of these kids are in attendance.

Gregg Crocker

Gregg cited another example of the program’s value. One student had missed a total of 36 days in the school year, but on the days she was tutored/mentored she had 100 percent attendance.

“That’s strong evidence that this is a good thing,” he said. “Parents see the need for the program as well, since often they may have less education than their children or work two jobs and are unable to help with schoolwork or other school issues.”

The CHiL setting endeavors to be as volunteer-friendly as possible. CHiL always tries to establish the appropriate student/tutor match up. New tutors are given a mandatory two-hour training period as a group and still receive support from a staff member throughout tutoring sessions. A math teacher is available for tutors who need guidance with current mathematics processes. In addition, students from Stevenson High School are there one afternoon a week to help out.

Volunteers do not need to be bi-lingual; all the students do speak English. Rose notes that when a student sees a word or phrase they don’t understand, she helps them look it up. “It’s great when the ‘light bulb’ goes off and they get it,” she said.

Rose offers this advice to new tutors: “Come with an open mind, ability to listen and a sense of humor. Some of these kids are not listened to at home and they want to vent sometimes. So listen, but don’t pass judgments. Leave that to the parents or teachers.”            

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