Suburban Mom Meets Urban School

A chorus of sing-songy voices greets me the moment I open the door, “Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Williams! You came back!” It is 1:30 on Thursday afternoon and Ms. Matteson’s second grade class at IPS School 54 is in the middle of their Writing and Math block. Math is the undisputed favorite subject of Ms. Matteson’s class and Thursday afternoons are quickly becoming my favorite time of the week.

The kids are always excited to see a visitor and their teacher gives them a few minutes to pepper me with questions.

“Did you go to work today? What do you do at your work?”

“Did you have ice cream last night?”

“Does your son play football?”

“Can I be your son?”

“Are you going to come every week?”

Consistency is rare indeed, both at school and at home. So they are mostly amazed and delighted that I keep showing up week after week.

This week there are 16 kids, last week the count was only 11, and the week before 13. None of these numbers represent the full class roster. In the ever changing landscape of an urban school a teacher can hardly predict what their classroom will look like week to week. An entire class has been known to turnover from one semester to the next. The makeup of a school like 54 shifts so much that teachers are often shuffled between grades in the same school year.

But none of this matters to Ms. Matteson. She runs a tight ship for whoever shows up. Uniform shirts tucked in at all times, feet on the floor, no talking out of turn, paper and pencil at the ready, and if she catches you not paying attention to the lesson you’re going to clip down for sure.

It is clear she strives to know these children well and she is doing everything in her power to see them succeed, but she can’t do it alone. I visit Brookside Elementary once a week as part of Northview Church’s partnership with IPS School 54.

Tutoring opportunities vary. Some tutors see 2-3 kids a week for 20 minutes at a time in the school library. Other tutors pull kids in the hallway to work on math or reading skills. I’m one of the lucky volunteers that gets to be in the classroom the entire time. I’ve attempted to help the kids learn how to do internet research on some very old and slow computers, spent some time learning a bit of new fangled math and most my time making new friends.

This isn’t my first stint at school volunteering. I have three kids at three different schools within Hamilton Southeastern School district. I love my school system and my kids have amazing teachers and administrators. It’s important to me to be involved in my child’s education, but being a room mom in the suburbs is sometimes more about the mom than the kids.

I have to be placed in a lottery, and chosen out of a hat for the privilege of chaperoning a 3rd grade field trip. I have to sign up for a one hour time slot a month to come in and make copies for my son’s 6th grade home room teacher. And I’ve seen Mom’s go to great lengths (not to mention spend hundreds of dollars on Oriental Trading Company) to “out-Pinterest” one another for classroom parties and Staff Appreciation Week.

In contrast, Northview’s volunteering hours at School 54 are about making a measurable difference. Inner-city schools have heard big plans from church and community groups before. Mostly empty promises, the majority of those volunteers stop showing up after a few months and the organization’s support trickles and dries up.

With this in mind, Northview placed a very small but mighty group of committed volunteers during the 2012-2013 school year. This commitment helped propel Brookside from an F school to a B school. That is a three letter grade performance improvement in just one year! This jump means more children passing standardized testing, mastering math skills and reading at grade level. Most importantly it represents over 600 kids on the embattled near Eastside of Indianapolis receiving an educational legup.

It’s almost time for me to leave the kids for another week. The boys give me high fives and the girls give me hugs. Suddenly the door slams and a defiant little boy slinks in. He is only 8, but he has been in detention. His hair is an unruly disheveled mess on top of his head and he carries an elaborate paper airplane.

Not only has he spent his time making airplanes instead of doing his work, he can’t even find the papers he was sent to detention with. He will surely come to school without them tomorrow and face further consequences. He comes to school sporadically and never on time. One can assume from his appearance that he is responsible for getting himself up and out the door in the morning for the walk to school. His mom is here now to pick him up early for the day but has never actually stepped foot in the front door of the school or returned any of the teacher’s calls or emails.

Ms. Matteson sighs as he shuffles out, pausing to stoop low, a hand on his shoulder and remind him that she looks forward to seeing him tomorrow and asking him to bring a better attitude. As he leaves she looks over to me with eyes that say, “What can I do?”

One of the key components of stemming the rising tide of hopelessness we’re seeing every night on the news and every morning in our newspapers is education. Is it fair that 20 minutes away from School 54 my children receive a public education that puts them on the fast track to college and future career success? These kids and their teachers deserve a fighting chance. And we can give it to them.

Once leery of our involvement, School 54 has now given us full access to the school and asked that we provide an army of 50 tutors for next year. We would like to get these tutors started before the end of the school year in June so they can hit the ground running next fall. Will you step up and give these kids a chance?

To volunteer or find out more about Northview’s programs at IPS School 54 including Box Tops for Education, Backpack Drive and School 54 Field Day please contact:


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