Every Tuesday and Thursday evening during the school year, students from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood join volunteers from Oak Park, River Forest, Austin, and surrounding communities to form one-to-one partnerships. Their combined mission: to boost student learning.

Cluster Tutoring was formed in 1990 as a nonprofit, community-based organization to tutor children from Austin. It has grown from 30-some tutors and students one night a week into a program that offers tutoring to more than 100 students on two nights. For 90 minutes a week, students in grades K-12 get the undivided attention of an adult to focus on reading fluency, vocabulary, math skills, and homework.

Many tutors and students return year after year as they form relationships that go from tutor-student to mentor-student to friendship. Both groups obviously enjoy the teamwork: last year, an average of 81 percent of students and 86 percent of tutors returned to the program. Some tutors have attended their students’ graduations from eighth grade, high school, and college. A few have attended weddings and baby showers. Through it all, they have seen their students grow into young adults more capable of handling the world around them.

Here are stories of some of those tutors and students:  

Holly Saunders: A tutoring tag team

Sisters Kiley and Kichelle started at Cluster when they were in second and third grade. The two sisters were assigned to a mother-and-daughter tutoring team, Holly Saunders and her middle-school-age daughter. But when her daughter got too busy with her own school activities, Holly decided to keep tutoring both sisters as a sort of tag team.

With two students to juggle, Holly learned to divide her time, working with one girl while the other did homework. She credits the resources at Cluster, such as the library books, flashcards, and computers as a big help, as well as the assistance of the volunteer math coach.

Both Kiley and Kichelle were good students, always getting A’s and B’s. Holly says, “When they were young, I bounced back and forth between them. Eventually, they brought their homework, and tutoring became self-sustaining.”

The two sisters appreciate everything they learned working with Holly. “Cluster has always meant having a place to study and do my homework,” Kichelle said. “It’s made me more responsible, and it’s shown me how to get things done.” Kiley said she appreciates her 10 years at Cluster. “Working with Holly always helped me get my homework done and keep my grades up.”

Kichelle, a 2017 graduate of Lane Tech High School, just finished her freshman year at Eastern Michigan University, studying speech pathology. Kiley, who just graduated from North Side College Prep, plans to be a business major.

Holly has nothing but praise for both students. Kichelle “has been a self-starter since junior high. She’s gained confidence.” Of Kiley: “She’s well-focused and able to keep on track. She’s a good critical thinker who has a lot of confidence.” Holly also praised Kiley’s work ethic and good study habits. “Whatever she decides to be, she’ll be doing it well.”

Now that Kiley has graduated, Holly has decided to take some time off from tutoring. “After a decade, it’s time to take a break.”

Lia Colbert: Using educational training

Lia Colbert thought she was ready to switch careers and become a teacher. But she decided to use the knowledge she gained in her education classes and apply it to Cluster Tutoring.

“I was actually going to change my field to education,” said Lia, who works in a cytopathology technology laboratory. “I had taken a semester of classes on my way to earning a master’s in education, and I just stumbled into tutoring instead.” Lia saw that she could use what she learned in her advanced classroom and turn it toward teaching others. She also remembered how helpful tutoring was when she was a student and was glad to pass it on.

Lia and her student, Jamiya, have tutored together for a long time, ever since Jamiya was in second grade. Jamiya is now a graduate of Lake View High School and is headed for college. Through it all, Lia has been a constant presence in Jamiya’s life, and both have enjoyed it every step of the way.

“She likes to take on a big load,” Lia said. “Sometimes she gets frustrated at the same time, but she can do it. Sometimes she needs some nudging to stay on track, but she’s a hard worker.”

Lia saw herself as a mentor as much as a tutor. “We discuss personal situations with friends or differences with teachers. It’s more than just helping her with academic tasks. It’s a matter of having her figure things out.” Jamiya became so comfortable with Lia that she occasionally texted her during the school day to ask for help with a schoolwork problem.

Jamiya credits Cluster and Lia for all the help and encouragement. “I always appreciated the extra help and the opportunities,” she said.

Like other tutors, Lia gets a lot out of participating. “It’s very fulfilling for me to be able to help. I’ve enjoyed being able to be that extra source for the students,” she said.

She has found an unexpected benefit from tutoring: lessons she can use with her own children in middle and high school. “Everything I’ve learned there, I’ve been able to apply to my kids,” she said.

Interested in learning more about becoming a tutor? Please attend an information session at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, or Thursday, Sept. 13, at First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St. For more information, please call 773-378-5530; email info@clustertutoring.org; or visit https://clustertutoring.org/.

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