THE MISSION OF CLUSTER TUTORING is to help students realize their potential through the power of learning in an environment that strengthens the student, the tutor, and the community.
Cluster Tutoring is a nonprofit, community-based organization that provides free one-to-one tutoring to more than 100 students primarily in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side. The program was founded in 1990 by a ‘cluster’ of local churches and community groups in response to the disturbing statistic that less than half of Chicago Public School students graduate from high school. Each tutor is matched with a student, and the tutor-student pair works together during the school year to prepare the student for a successful academic career.
Students and tutors work together during the school year on either Tuesday or Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. The program has a focus on literacy. Elementary school students spend 30 to 60 minutes of their tutoring session on the program’s Structured Reading Project and the remainder of the evening on homework or other enrichment activities. The Structured Reading Project includes Ready Readers, a special curriculum for emerging readers in grades K-3. High school students generally spend all of their time on homework.
Activities that may be offered during the tutoring session include a college access program, math games, a student newsletter published twice a year, and a variety of activities on the program's computers, which have Internet access. Each session begins with a healthy snack for students, usually a granola bar and milk.
Cluster is proud of its track record and can boast the following results:
- Creating relationships that endure. More than 80% of Cluster students and tutors return to the program each year. The average Cluster student stays with the program for four years.
- Improving reading skills. Cluster has a focus on literacy and evaluates student reading twice a year. At the end of the 2015-16 tutoring year, 79% of Cluster students were reading at or above grade level.
- Academic improvement. Cluster students submit a copy of their report card three times a year, and two-thirds of students improve their grades or maintain an A or B average while attending tutoring.
- Preparing students for life after high school. In the past 15 years, all Cluster students have graduated from high school in four years, and 90% enroll in college or community college within six months of graduation.
- College attendance. Graduates of Cluster Tutoring have gone on to a variety of community colleges and the following four-year institutions: Eastern Illinois University, Tuskegee University, Iowa Wesleyan University, Johnson & Wales, Beloit College, Missouri State University, Morehouse College, Northern Illinois University, Tufts University, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Valparaiso University.
Located on the far west side of Chicago, the Austin community served by Cluster is the city’s largest neighborhood, both in terms of population and land area. It is also one of Chicago’s most neglected in terms of educational opportunities. Consider the following:
- 64 percent of freshmen at Austin public high schools graduate within five years, and only half of those graduates go to college.
- Less than eight percent of the students at Austin high schools are considered “college ready,” according to standardized tests.
- Reading is the biggest deficit these students have to overcome. Two-thirds of Cluster’s new students are at least a year below grade level in reading. Forty percent are two or more years behind.
- Cluster serves a low-to-moderate income population, with 95 percent of its students qualifying for their school’s free lunch program. The Austin community has a 27 percent poverty rate.
- Cluster is the only one-to-one academic tutoring program in the area.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Faye Graham Floyd
Karen Heller (President)
Marge Lyon (Secretary)
Abby Sullivan (Treasurer)
Kara Kalnitz, Executive Director
Kara Kalnitz has been working for Cluster since September 2009. Prior to serving as the Thursday Program Manager and now Executive Director, Kara was a volunteer tutor with Cluster for four years. She has a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a Licensed Social Worker.
Tabitha Turner, Reading Specialist
Tabitha is a Certified Reading Specialist and a 2nd grade teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system. She was a teacher in Cluster’s first-ever summer reading program.
Sarah Hoffman, Program Assistant
Sarah is a long-time volunteer in many fields who decided to make a switch from volunteer tutor to tutoring staff. While her own children were in elementary school, she aided teachers in the classroom, often helping struggling readers.
Cathy Lazuka, Development Director
Cathy Lazuka joined Cluster in May of 2016. She is passionate about helping organizations grow and thrive to best fulfill their mission. In her professional and volunteer roles, Cathy has raised millions of dollars from all forms of philanthropy, designed and managed programs, recruited and trained board members and staff, led multi-year strategic planning efforts, and worked with diverse populations on a variety of community issues. Cathy holds her M.A. and B.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Sher Watts Spooner, Marketing Coordinator
Sher Watts Spooner has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years on one national weekly and three daily newspapers. Now a freelance writer and editor, Sher handles social media and marketing for Cluster. She also writes mysteries and a weekly political column for a national website, Daily Kos. Sher has a degree in speech communication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Joseph Owens, Tuesday Security
Joseph is a member of Pine Avenue United Church and has been working for Cluster for the past four years. He greets everyone at the door as they arrive for Tuesday tutoring. Joseph is responsible for ensuring that students and tutors safely arrive and leave after a night of tutoring.