Wichita Homework Hotline provides video tutoring for students learning from home

By Matthew Kelly, Wichita Journalism Collaborative

A team of five resourceful teachers, armed with their knowledge and digital access to all Wichita Public Schools textbooks, is striving to provide free one-on-one homework help to students in the age of remote learning.

The Homework Hotline is open from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Students from kindergarten to the 12th grade and their parents can request tutoring over the phone in English or Spanish, or set up video chats with teachers certified in a wide array of subjects.

“We offer tutoring in any academic area,” said Tracy Callard, who has been with the Homework Hotline since it launched in 2018. “I mean, I’ve done JROTC with kids, financial literacy, elementary phonics, we do Spanish — really whatever they need, we help them with.”

Remote learning has led to an influx of students asking for help with high school English among other subjects, Collard said.

“It’s probably harder for them when the English teachers are not there face-to-face to sit down and work with them on their essays and things,” she said. “Math is usually the mainstay, but this year, definitely, other subject areas have increased in volume.”

Collard, who teaches language arts to gifted students at Robinson Middle School, is currently re-reading Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” because so many freshmen across the district are calling in with questions about character analysis.

“We learn the material and help the kids,” she said.

In light of the pandemic, the Homework Hotline has turned to Microsoft Teams, the workspace platform USD 259 is using for remote learning this year. Collard said the video component has streamlined tutoring operations.

“We can actually video chat with the kids and they can screen-share so we can see what they’re working on,” she said.

“We even do a little bit of tech troubleshooting with them if they’re having some issues with their technology and they need that. We help the parents when the parents don’t understand what’s going on.”

A secondary math teacher is always on-call to help students work through complicated problems. But tutoring is a community effort, Collard said.

“My kids are in college, and last year, when I was getting calculus calls, I sent them to my kids,” she said. “I would text my own children and say, ‘Hey, would you mind helping this kid with calculus? I don’t know how to do it.’”

Collard said Kansas should consider investing in a statewide hotline that calls on teachers with specialized areas of expertise to help tutor students.

“To be honest, it would be great if we did it statewide and we had a bank of experts in certain subject areas, so like, a biology teacher or a physics teacher,” Collard said.

Tennessee has provided a statewide tutoring hotline since 1990. Funded through a combination of corporate and individual sponsors, the Tennessee hotline’s website boasts that it has provided more than 550,000 one-on-one tutoring sessions in the last 30 years. 

Cole Anderson, 14, attends his remote learning sessions at his family’s kitchen table Dec. 9, 2020. Anderson attends Coleman Middle School which has been strictly remote since the beginning of the school year. (Photo by Fernando Salazar / Wichita Journalism Collaborative)

Last school year, 93% of students who used the hotline expressed that it helped them better understand the concept they were struggling with.

Collard said maintaining the Wichita Homework Hotline is relatively simple. Most of the legwork came on the front end, making sure teachers had access to electronic copies of textbooks.

The Homework Hotline is routed through teachers’ work laptops, so calls go directly to their Surface Pros and on-duty staffers can create a mini call center to direct traffic.

Students and parents can reach the Homework Hotline by phone at (316) 973-4411 or by email at homework@usd259.net.

While Wichita students have had access to remote tutoring help for several years, other area school districts started similar programs in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, the Maize Unified School District debuted an Academic Help Desk that operates from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. on school days. Students fill out a Google form and the district works to match them with a qualified educator based on grade and subject matter.

This fall, Derby Public Schools also launched a remote tutoring program with weekly sign-up for K-12 students.