Q&A with Cathy Cieslinski, Ed.D.
Nearly twenty years ago, Dr. Cathy Cieslinski, Instructional Support Teacher at Centerville Elementary School, in the Hempfield School District, (Lancaster, PA) developed two homework help programs to give elementary students instructional support, structured practice, and additional confidence in their school work. We recently talked with Dr. Cieslinski about developing a homework help program and asked her to provide advice for other teachers looking to create homework help clubs at their schools.
Here’s what she had to say!
Can you tell me about the Morning Homework Program and After-School Homework Program run at Centerville Elementary?
The daily morning program provides students with an in-school support to complete homework, study for tests, reread books (for developing readers), study spelling words, practice math facts, and more. We usually have four or five adults and often a few sixth-grade helpers. Students are welcome anytime within the first hour of the day.
We support almost any type of learning experience; however, reading, math, and spelling are often the focus. There are other elementary schools within the district with support programs either in the morning, over lunch, or toward the end of the day.
During the Tuesday After-school Homework program high school students volunteer to serve as a homework buddy to an elementary student. I organized the program and coordinate the elementary/high school connection. Other Centerville elementary teachers volunteer their after-school time to monitor the program, especially when I cannot be present. The focus is similar to the morning program: homework completion, test preparation, skill acquisition, etc. The elementary students absolutely love having a high school buddy…the connections are priceless!
How did you recognize a need for a homework help program at Centerville? What was the goal of the program when it started?
An important part of instructional support is to ensure school-wide programs. Homework can be stressful for students, parents, and teachers for a variety of reasons. We knew many students would benefit from the morning homework/study time, especially if completing homework at home was not happening. In addition, we realized students needed structured practice, “quick hits,” and more experiences with certain skills, concepts, and more.
Homework completion and test preparation are the primary goals for the after-school program. However, the buddy connection, conversation, care, and collaboration are awesome outcomes as well.
Were you the one to spearhead the program? Who were your team members?
I initiated our Morning Homework Program soon after becoming the Instructional Support Teacher.
For the weekly after-school program, I collaborated with a high school teacher and an elementary parent to bring a small, established after-school homework program from one of our local community-based developments into the Centerville school.
We started small, but quickly grew to include approximately 75 elementary students and nearly that many high school volunteers. The numbers have fluctuated over the years. Now we typically invite approximately 30–35 elementary students.
Do teachers identify students who should participate in the programs or is it open to any/all students?
The Morning Homework Program is available for all students. It is an open- or revolving- door program. Mostly, teachers or support staff suggest students who may benefit. At times, a student asks his/her teacher for permission to attend.
The Tuesday After-School Homework Program participants are invited per teacher or, at times, parent recommendation. Students may even ask to participate.
You have support staff, community members, and older students serving as “homework helpers.” How do you recruit and train volunteers for the program?
We invite parents and grandparents via our PTO and other school-related connections. Our districts’ senior tax credit program includes the morning program on their list of approved work assignments. We encourage retirees to return to help. The elementary support staff is called upon as needed. Our sixth-grade teachers are gracious and share capable sixth graders as part of their early morning routine.
There are guidelines for the helpers. I train the volunteers and help prepare them as much as possible. Most of the learning happens as the experiences unfold.
Our high school volunteers must attend an orientation prior to working with the younger students. There are very specific guidelines and expectations for the high school students, and we do much coaching as the experiences unfold.
How do the programs support classroom learning? Do you simply help students with assigned homework or are there resources available to reinforce what they learn in the classroom?
We do not refer to our programs as “tutoring.” Certified teachers deliver tutoring. Each school in the district offers tutoring throughout the school year. Our programs offer “guidance” and “quick hits” to support and to enhance learning opportunities. We do not proclaim to remediate.
We support work completion, practice and reinforce skills and concepts, prepare students for tests, and whatever else is needed to ensure students are successful! Our programs directly connect to and support the classroom instruction. Often, students have the necessary materials. However, our programs provide additional resources, tools, and manipulatives, as needed, to facilitate student learning.
Did you need to purchase separate resources for this program? If so, how did you get the funding?
Initially, we needed to borrow materials from our established instructional programs. Teachers were very gracious to share or to give. Volunteers and/or parents sometimes donate materials or resources. I have lots of resources and use them in all facets of instruction/intervention including the morning and the after-school homework programs.
What results have you seen since developing the homework help programs?
Over the years, we have observed so many outcomes. We cannot “quantify” these, but the qualitative data are overwhelming.
Both programs have been a consistent support for our students, teachers, and parents. Our amazing volunteers—from the high school students to parents, grandparents, Senior Tax Credit folks and, at times, college students—return year after year after year. One of our morning homework helpers has been volunteering since our beginning, nearly 20 years ago. There are special bonds created between the students and the helpers. At times, these connections continue for years. One Hempfield High School graduate returned to Centerville during her college years to continue to work with her homework buddy.
Our teachers share that these programs enhance students’ acquisition of skills such as basic math facts, spelling words, and the reading of developmental books. Students feel good about themselves when they know they are prepared, have practiced, and are ready to learn and/or to test. The after school homework participants proclaim that Tuesday is their favorite day of the week!
Now that you’ve built your own program, what tips would you give to someone wanting to start up their own?
It is important to start small to ensure the protocols are established and the sessions are manageable. Then, the program(s) can grow and expand. It helps to collaborate with someone who has been involved with the development of these support programs. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Rather, take a successful model and tweak to meet the needs of the school!