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: 

Maggie Farren: The high school tutor

If tutor Maggie Farren looks more like one of the Cluster Tutoring students than a tutor, there’s good reason. Maggie was one of the few tutors who joined the program as a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Maggie’s mother saw a notice in the local paper that tutors were needed. 

“I wasn’t doing much at the time,” Maggie said. “I went to the orientation and realized that I was one of the youngest people there.”

Maggie, who has three younger siblings, realized she loves to work with younger kids. She spent her sophomore, junior, and senior years helping her student, Nickeyah, who started Cluster in kindergarten. It’s been a joyful collaboration.  

According to Maggie, Nickeyah “is absolutely amazing. She’s made me stick with it. She’s totally enthusiastic. I love that about her.”

Maggie shared her tutoring experiences with her friends at school. 

“Most of them say, ‘Oh, that’s so cool. Tell me more about it.’ When Nickeyah gets a good report card, I tell everyone. I’m so proud of her. I think a lot of my friends would be good tutors. It’s valuable to have teenagers doing tutoring. There’s more understanding of what kids are doing in school.”

As a kindergartner, Nickeyah started out learning the alphabet and writing her letters. The pair have kept a notebook throughout the years to measure her progress. “Now, when we look back, we see how far she’s come,” Maggie said.

“Tutoring is like a two-way street,” she added. “I teach Nickeyah, but she’s living a life I can’t imagine. I learn as much from her as she learns from me.”  

In the fall, Maggie is heading to college, and Nickeyah will be starting third grade; both have benefited from their time together.  

Leslie Hodes: Putting 35 years of teaching experience to good use

After 35 years as an educator, Leslie Hodes could spend her days with friends, in her garden, or traveling around the world. Instead, the retired teacher and principal shares her love of learning at Cluster Tutoring.

A Cluster tutor for nearly five years, Leslie works with rising eighth-grader Teshell. The two meet at Cluster’s Thursday night program at First United Church of Oak Park. Leslie also serves as secretary on Cluster’s board of directors.

For Leslie and Teshell, learning doesn’t stop when school is out. The two meet for tutoring during the summer to maintain her learning progress. Leslie is generous in her mentoring: In past years, she also has provided literacy support to other Cluster students in the summer.

“I think Cluster is extraordinary, and we make a huge difference,” Leslie said. She loves that many students and tutors stay together for years and build long-term relationships.

“My greatest joy is making a difference in the lives of kids,” she said. “I love working with kids who have significant learning challenges and watching them grow, progress, flourish, and feel better about themselves. It’s a gift to be able to do that.”

Teshell agrees and says she appreciates all of Leslie’s help. 

“Leslie won’t give up on you. I don’t stop working until I reach my goals.”

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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