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From left: Homework Helpers Evan Forti Hong, Gary Loope (former member), philosophy professor David Emmanuel Gray, Julia Dietz, Shanaz Uddin and Gubaz Giorgadze.
By ARCHANA MOHAN
Published January 13, 2023
Motivated by grim state data identifying significant educational deficiencies, UB’s Homework Helpers is trying to make a difference for Buffalo public school students who need extra help with their studies.
Founded by five students in spring 2021, UB Homework Helpers is a volunteer-run organization providing free virtual tutoring — from reading to math and beyond — to K-12 students in the Buffalo Public Schools.
The program, which took form in the PHI 485 classroom of David Gray, clinical associate professor of philosophy, aims to make tutoring accessible to students who otherwise could not afford the service. It is currently managed by four of the five original founders: Julia Dietz, Evan Forti Hong, Gubaz Giorgadze and Shanaz Uddin, all current or former UB political science students.
“It was for our capstone class with Dr. Gray,” says Uddin, referring to a degree requirement that students demonstrate practical knowledge in their major. “We had to work on a project. Its objective was literally to make the world a better place.”
And for the students, making the world a better place begins with reforming little pockets of Buffalo.
The Buffalo Public Schools had some of the lowest statewide rankings in 2021-22, with only 16% of its students in grades three through eight proficient in math, the New York State Education Department reported.
The political science students were aware of the systemic inequality in the city’s education system. The project shed light on how grim it truly was.
“It was more than a class project to us,” Dietz explains. “We knew about the systemic difference and funding disparities between inner-city public schools and the schools in the suburbs. The statistics are alarming. We cannot fix the problem entirely. We just wanted to find a way to help these kids.”
It was then that they stumbled upon Homework Helpers, a volunteer-tutor initiative developed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to support New York City public school students through COVID-19 disruptions. Forti Hong had previously worked for Ocasio-Cortez’s team; the UB group unanimously decided to bring that initiative to Buffalo.
“We just cold-emailed one of my contacts with Team AOC,” says Forti Hong. “It was like, ‘We’re starting this thing in Buffalo. Do you want to join?’ and the response was great.”
After meeting with the UB students, Ocasio-Cortez’s team agreed to provide resources for setting up the virtual tutoring platform and performing background checks for volunteers.
UB Homework Helpers became the first chapter of Ocasio-Cortez’s original program.
It only took one Facebook post from Kate Haq, secretary of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, to bring UB Homework Helpers into the Buffalo Public Schools.
“We reached out and had a couple of meetings with the head of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization,” says Dietz. “What she did was make one post on a Facebook page. That got the schools to start sending it to parents. We’ve had almost 90 students sign up just because of that.”
The UB volunteers provide one-on-one tutoring for anyone who signs up. Forti Hong is currently helping a sixth-grader improve his reading. They meet online once a week and read his favorite X-Men comics together.
The barrier lies in securing volunteers. From recruiting friends to talking to student clubs, the team works relentlessly to get more UB students and faculty on board.
“I really want to emphasize how much we need tutors,” says Uddin. “We have about 50 students who have signed up and have not been matched with a tutor yet. Any volunteers — students, professors — can sign up.”
As of this writing, the program has 84 students signed up for tutoring and 21 active tutors. About 30 volunteers await background checks and matches with students.
Volunteer tutors are the heart of UB Homework Helpers. Creating incentives to attract volunteers is top priority.
“A lot of students so far are willing to take time out of their days to tutor Buffalo kids,” says Forti Hong. “If we give a little more incentive, many more people will be able to join us and give this program more visibility.”
UB’s Experiential Learning Network is working to provide badges for the students tutoring through UB Homework Helpers. Abigail Matthews, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, has also shown her support, working to get approval for a course incorporating the program for the fall semester.
Interested individuals can sign up to volunteer at ubhomeworkhelpers.com.
The founders believe cementing UB Homework Helpers within the university will guarantee its growth and longevity. Dietz, Forti Hong, Gubaz and Uddin hope that UB Homework Helpers will exist far into the future, thriving and supporting Buffalo students for years to come.
The team has already gained a lot since the organization’s inception.
“At first, we could only imagine how far we could take this,” says Giorgadze. “It was the little leaps we took that ended up paying off every step of the way. We didn’t think all of this was achievable. But here we are! The sky’s the limit, right?”
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