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Local Organization Offers Tutoring & Advocacy for Homeless Children

Photography Provided

Working as a school social worker in the late 90s, Sally Bindley knew that children living in poverty faced grave educational challenges. Other than a single homeless liaison in each school district who was there to ensure the educational rights of homeless students, there was no formalized system in place for providing additional educational support and advocacy for children who were homeless. Therefore, in 2001, Bindley founded School on Wheels, an organization that provides one-on-one tutoring and educational advocacy for school-aged children and their families impacted by homelessness.

“I thought, ‘If we want kids who are homeless today to not be homeless tomorrow, the number one thing that can get them out of that is education,’” says Bindley, who enlisted the help of her best friend, her mom, and her mom’s best friend. The women called area shelters to ask if they could come after school to help the kids with their homework. The shelters welcomed the foursome with open arms.

“We saw 50 kids that first year and thought we had changed the world,” Bindley says. “What we discovered was that the need was great.”

As soon as other shelters found out what the ladies were doing, they wanted School on Wheels to come to them, too. Bindley sought out additional volunteers and today has more than 440 volunteers from Broad Ripple, Geist, Fishers, and surrounding locations. Last year alone, those volunteers spent 6,700 hours providing services, resulting in helping 571 children and parents.

Volunteers go to the same location on the same day and same time to work with the same student for one hour each week.

“We want volunteers to find a time and place that works for their schedule,” Bindley says, noting that they welcome volunteers as young as 11 if accompanied by a parent or guardian. By age 13, they can tutor by themselves. A number of kids who started volunteering when they were 11 have done it all through high school.

“It’s a powerful lesson for kids to see how we are more alike than different,” Bindley says. “It’s also empowering for kids to help other kids.”

In addition to providing one-on-one tutoring for homeless students at 16 locations, they also offer school choice workshops to parents.

“We help them identify their child’s academic needs to determine the best school for enrollment,” Bindley says. “We also help them with logistics and transportation.”

In addition, they attend back-to-school nights, open houses, and parent-teacher conferences with parents, and facilitate testing if they suspect a child might have a learning disability.

“We help break down any barrier a homeless child may have so they can have a better school experience,” Bindley explains.

Through the years, they have changed their program model. They have shelter-based programming, which is an afterschool tutoring program at the shelters where the families are living. Then they have school-based programming that started out as after-school tutoring and has grown into a program where they tutor kids during the school day as well.

“So, instead of needing tutors at these different schools an hour after school each day, now we have opportunities to grab kids out of classrooms and work with them one-on-one or in small group settings,” says Bindley, who loves the fact that the program has been around long enough that those who were once tutees are now tutors. She also loves how much their volunteers get out of the experience.

“We have tutors who say this is the best hour of their week,” Bindley says. “And we have families who tutor together who tell us their most important conversations are the ones they have on their way home from tutoring every week.”

Adolphus Fifer says that the joy he gets from making a difference in these kids’ lives is his favorite part of volunteering.

“You can see it in their eyes,” Fifer says. “Connecting with them and getting to know them is such a joy.”

Aleesia Johnson, Superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, says that IPS is grateful for their partnership with School on Wheels. 

“We believe that we are stronger when we work together as partners toward a shared goal, and School on Wheels is an example of such an organization—working in our community to remove barriers and support student success,” Johnson says.

According to Bindley, as many as 5,000 students are homeless in the Indianapolis area annually. In addition, homeless children are nine times more likely to repeat a grade in school. For those homeless kiddos who were tutored by School on Wheels volunteers, however, 98% were promoted to the next grade.

“We focus on providing support in every area so we can figure out what’s causing a child to not be successful,” says Bindley, noting that often it’s the human connection—the high-fives and accolades—that can mark the difference.

“There is so much power in treating people not as victims but as peers,” Bindley says. “Being understanding of their situation and helping them without judging them is something School on Wheels really excels at.”

Those ongoing relationships really pay off. She tells the story of a boy who was working on a math assignment. When he finished, he was to hit the buzzer and keep going. The tutor told him, “You did a wonderful job, but next time you can hit the buzzer faster and get more done.” The boy replied, “I don’t hit the buzzer fast because I like to look at the work I did because I’m so proud of the ones I get right.”

“When kids struggle with a subject and then have some kind of mastery they are proud of, it encourages them to continue to focus on school,” Bindley says. “It’s a beautiful moment when you’re working with a kid who says, ‘I did it!’”

Erica, parent of two School on Wheels students, is grateful that the organization is helping her sons see the bigger picture.

“I want my boys to be successful. I want them to look more into the bigger side of the world,” she says. “There is more to life than just the streets. Education can be a big step towards changing our world and our kids’ future.”

To learn more about School on Wheels, to donate supplies or become a sponsor, visit indyschoolonwheels.org or give them a call at 317-202-9100.

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