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Program to tutor homeless kids grows

School on Wheels aims to teach youngsters that education is key, says founder Cheryl Opper. School on Wheels aims to teach youngsters that education is key, says founder Cheryl Opper.
By Meena Ramakrishnan
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2011

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There are hundreds of homeless families south of Boston, and for many of them their children’s education often suffers or gets neglected.

In 2004 Easton resident Cheryl Opper found a way to help transient families with School on Wheels Massachusetts, an after-school program geared toward helping youngsters in temporary housing by bringing tutors and mentors to them. Opper, the founder and executive director, says School on Wheels not only helps the youngsters with their homework but also gives them a foundation for learning.

“It’s not so much a homework club as it is to build them up and help them understand the importance of education,’’ she said recently.

Since School on Wheels opened its first, and largest, site in Brockton, the program has expanded its reach in the last year to Middleborough, Stoughton, Norwell, and New Bedford. And as the first day of school nears, Opper says more tutors and mentors are needed to meet the growing demand.

The volunteers meet one-on-one with students from pre-K through 12th grade regularly to help them overcome any obstacle to learning the basics. The meetings take place at area homeless shelters and draw families from shelters, motels, and other temporary housing.

“Our whole mission is breaking the cycle of homelessness through education, which is done by stability with the same volunteers, when they’re living in a sense of turmoil and chaos,’’ Opper said.

For an hour each week, the tutors assist with homework, reading, and projects. Help for each student is based on the skills required in the classroom, which can vary from one school to another.

Opper said many families often move multiple times a year, and it can take a student three to six months to adjust academically.

“What we find is students are missing layers of learning,’’ she said. “We’ve worked with a sixth-grader who was doing algebra but didn’t know how to multiply.’’

Beyond mentoring and tutoring services, School on Wheels also helps out in other ways - whether it’s providing a ride home from track practice or providing calculators, backpacks, and other supplies. This summer, for example, the organization donated 600 backpacks through liaisons working in school districts.

In addition to volunteers, School on Wheels could also use donations of cash or supplies, Opper said. The organization says it’s the only one in the state providing one-on-one tutoring, new supplies, and educational advocacy and support to homeless children. It has 11 program sites in five communities tutoring 150 to 200 children a week. Since the program’s inception, at least four students have gone on to college.

Opper estimates there are many hundreds of homeless children in the region, and says there are 170 homeless families living in motels in Brockton alone.

School on Wheels has chapters in Indiana and California.

For more information about becoming an afterschool tutor/mentor, contact Robin Gilbert at robin@sowma.org, or 508-587-9091. The group’s website is at www.sowma.org.

Meena Ramakrishnan can be reached at mramakrishnan@globe.com.