As the sun set over Pescadero on a recent Tuesday, a dozen joyful children careened from the playground into the multi-purpose room at Pescadero Elementary School, where Puente holds its Homework Club. As they settled themselves on a carpet, two 10-year-olds opened a Dr. Seuss book and began to read aloud. “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” intoned Andrea Lopez. She turned the book around to show the illustration to the group sitting at her feet before handing the book to her friend Mariela Cruz, who read the next page aloud and passed it back.
The younger children fidgeted but listened, laughing over some of the pictures and the wordplay in the book. The adults listened too. It was a classic Puente moment: learning and empowerment, combined.
The girls read effortlessly and gracefully, and one child in particular seemed transfixed, moving closer so she could see the illustrations. Perla Hernandez is a 6-year-old kindergartener, and just like all of the regular attenders of Homework Club, has improved her reading skills.
Last fall, Perla and her older sister Mairol started attending Puente’s newly revitalized Homework Club from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The program gives one-on-one attention to students in preschool through eighth grade while their parents are next door in Puente’s classrooms, taking English as Second Language classes. It is meant to complement the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District’s own well-organized K-8 after-school program, which includes about 88 students.
When she first walked into Homework Club, Perla was 5 years old, and seemed to have some anxiety around reading.
“She would come to Homework Club and shut down,” recalls Rev. Abby Mohaupt, Puente’s Faith Community Liaison/Volunteer Coordinator, and one of the coordinators of Homework Club. “She wouldn’t talk to me. “We’d say, ‘Perla, do you want to read?’ And she would start to cry. We couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
Gently and patiently, two of Puente’s Homework Club reading partners, longtime volunteer Carol Young-Holt and Diana Lopez, began taking Perla aside to show her books and sit with her, as they do with most of the students who come to Homework Club. They began exploring letters and words together. Little by little, Perla started to enjoy the pictures and storylines. She learned her letters and began to sound them out. When she stumbled over a sentence, she wouldn’t cry. She kept trying.
Now Perla is so excited about being at Homework Club that she runs up to Mohaupt and throws her arms around her waist. Tonight the group is planting flower seeds in the pots they decorated last week, and Perla cries, “Where’s mine?”
Later, it’s time for everyone to break up into smaller groups to do their schoolwork, practice reading, or complete some math problems on DreamBox, a program loaded onto laptops that belong to the school district. Ivan Ortega, the 19-year-old who coordinates Homework Club with Mohaupt, is circling the table to work with students who ask him for help. “What’s 8 minus 1?” he coaches a young boy.
Perla sits down with Diana Lopez; together, they read a book about a character named Froggy. Perla’s favorite book is called ‘Mouse.’ “She’s basically memorized it and she wants to read it every time,” laughs Carol Young-Holt.
Homework Club has made a difference in the academic performance and behavioral attitudes of dozens of students. Now Puente would like to expand the potential for success stories like Perla’s with even more one-on-one reading attention. To do this, Puente needs to recruit more reading volunteers – especially during the after-school program, from 3 to 5 p.m. The school district and Puente have a shared goal to bring in more reading tutors after school, when kids are more awake and therefore more likely to benefit and the district underwrites a significant portion of the program’s costs.
“The more time we can get kids reading with adults, that’s great for them,” enthuses Pescadero Elementary School Principal Erica Hays. “It’s so enjoyable to work with the kids. And then you see the progress.”
Hays and Mohaupt hope to have the new volunteers in place starting next fall. “Right now, Homework Club is only open to students whose parents are in ESL, and we want to respond to students’ larger needs,” says Mohaupt. “Working with the elementary school and their after-school program means we can teach more kids.”
Homework Club includes enrichment-based activities, like art projects, science, and creative group activities, as well as basic language arts and mathematics.
Puente is also seeking donated Spanish-language books for young readers. So many of the students are bilingual, with experience reading books in both languages. Sometimes they only understand Spanish, so those books are their gateway to reading. “Being bilingual – that’s just such a leg up for them,” says Young-Holt.
Perla’s favorite moment so far might be the birthday surprise she got on Tuesday, when she mentioned that she had just turned 6. Mohaupt went out and bought Oreo cookies – Perla’s favorite – and dimmed the lights. The group belted out an enthusiastic ‘Happy Birthday,’ a ritual that the group looks forward to for each student’s birthday.
“Having fun?” Somebody asked. Perla nodded, her mouth too full of cookies to respond.