Last spring semester, the PHI 485 capstone course tasked students with “making the world better.”
Despite graduation looming, one team of five then-political science majors knew exactly which issue they wanted to fix: education inequality.
“We knew [about] the historical redlining that Buffalo has gone through and how there’s obvious disparities,” Shanaz Uddin, a graduate and founding team member, said.
The team decided to level the playing field by providing tutoring services and other resources to underserved students in Buffalo. They got to work, like they had on countless prior projects — but this one was different.
“Even though it was just a project, right from the start we were so passionate about it,” Julia Dietz, a graduated group member said. “We knew it was something that we wanted to last for years to come. This isn’t just some project.”
The team was so passionate about it that they started looking for ways to make their idea a reality.
After some research, they found Team AOC’s Homework Helpers, a student-organized arm of Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s initiative to provide free one-on-one virtual tutoring to students in need. Homework Helpers, which was founded in October of 2020 after New York City schools closed due to COVID-19, pairs prospective volunteer tutors with children and teenagers in grades K-12.
“Due to systemic inequities in our education system, working class families are especially struggling with virtual learning and homework,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with parents.com, a dedicated publication for parenting advice. “As elected officials, we should step in to support our constituents when systems fail to do so.”
Dietz says after puzzling over a concrete approach to the education disparity in Buffalo, the team decided that a tutoring service akin to the Homework Helpers initiative would best harness and apply an abundant resource on campus: UB students.
“We just think it’s gonna be really good for the kids,” she said. “Not only in terms of tutoring, but for them to just be able to develop a relationship with someone, at all.”
After setting up a meeting with Homework Helpers and pitching the idea to open an on-campus branch at UB, Uddin says the Homework Helpers team was “really excited” to bring the program to K-12 students in the Buffalo area.
“They [Team AOC] gave us all the resources,” Uddin said. “They wanted to make us a chapter and set a precedent for what other schools and universities could do in their cities to provide free tutoring.”
An original founder left the project after they graduated, but the team enlisted senior political science major and Homework Helpers volunteer Evan Hong to pick up the slack. They also inherited a near-replica of Team AOC’s Homework Helpers infrastructure, including onboarding materials for student volunteer tutors such as instructional presentations for new tutors, email templates that tutors can use to contact parents and a Discord server and learning platform that allows tutors to connect virtually with students and parents.
“They’ve just been very eager to share their resources with us, so hopefully we can really make use of everything that they’ve been giving to us,” Gubaz Giogadze, a graduated political science major and group member said.
Jonathan Soto, a former political organizer for the AOC campaign, encouraged others to join after the program’s launch.
“Anyone can do this,” Soto said. “ If you have 20 people who are willing to give one hour per week for four weeks, you’ll be able to service an entire class.”
Homework Helpers was founded during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated pre-existing educational disparities between high and low income families.
Low-income parents were most concerned about their children falling behind academically during the pandemic, according to polling. Seventy-two percent were at least “somewhat concerned” about their students struggling, according to a 2020 report by Pew Research Center.
While 66% of parents reported providing additional support for their children outside of school, just 8% of low-income parents hired tutors compared to 19% of high-income parents.
But the disparities transcend the scope of the pandemic. Hong cited a longstanding reliance on property taxes in public schooling as a key factor in disparities in education between communities with high property values and tax revenues and those blighted by redlining and disinvestment.
The disparity is especially pronounced in Buffalo, which remains one of the most impoverished cities in the U.S., with a poverty rate of 28.8% in 2019 and a childhood poverty rate of 43.4%, according to The Investigative Post. With less revenue from property taxes, low-income school districts have on average fewer dollars to spend per student.
“When you have these many disadvantages stacked against you just in terms of poverty, of course it’s going to be very hard to do well in school,” Hong said.
The Supreme Court has historically upheld the status quo in cases like San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which challenged funding inequities between schools in lower income areas and higher income areas in the same state.
“It’s not fair,” Hong said. “It’s stacked against these kids even from when they’re very little and it’s just terrible. Obviously, this [UB Homework Helpers] does not balance it all out. But maybe we can do something. Just any little bit to help.”
Making this program accessible to all students who need it is a priority as well, as students need a computer and stable internet connection to participate.
The Buffalo Public School district received a $9 million award from the state in 2020 for “technology improvements” according to The Buffalo News, allowing every student in the district to receive a device.
“We wish we could get everyone internet access and laptops,” Uddin said. “But obviously, that is not feasible for us.”
The group hopes to one day offer in-person meetings at schools or public libraries, but their top priority is getting enough hands on deck.
Approximately 70 kids have signed up for tutoring, but UB Homework Helpers still needs 30 more tutors to meet demand.
“I just hope that every kid can have someone — even if it’s once a week — to be there for them,” Dietz said. “To help them with their homework but also just to be a friend.”
The five founders even pitched in to host a $100 raffle for prospective tutors who join and serve until the end of the semester to boost recruitment, at least in the short term.
But to bolster its ranks and establish a durable base of volunteers in the long run, UB Homework Helpers has its sights set on gaining club recognition from SA, convincing the university to allow students to receive class credit for tutoring and partnering with the university’s Experiential Learning Network to offer microcredential badges for future participants.
“I think at the end it’s really rewarding,” Uddin said. “There’s something physical that comes out of it. It gives you something to talk about with employers or grad schools. It just sets you a little bit apart if everyone in your course is doing the same things.”
The five founders don’t plan on stopping their fight against education inequality after leaving the UB Homework Helpers, though.
“Eventually, we do want to get into office and change these broken systems,” Hong said. “This is just step one. We’re going to keep going.”
Interested students and faculty must provide their name, address and a photo and pass a background check before signing up on homeworkhelpers.com.
Volunteers may then specify what subjects and grades they would like to teach and join the organization Discord server to receive onboarding material before matching with students based on their needs.
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kiana Hodge is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum.