Got the homework blues? Our libraries have great, free help

Three days a week, the two study rooms at the Columbia Branch of the Seattle Public Library hum with the sound of students and volunteers poring over atlases, math problems, dictionaries and textbooks. School is back in session and homework help is in full swing at the library.

Radiz is a 16-year-old Garfield High School student who needs help with her biology and algebra assignments. Abdi, 12, arrived in the United States this past summer and is eager to improve his reading skills by reading aloud with someone to help him with words he doesn't know yet. Jenny, a fifth-grader at Van Asselt Elementary School, is researching the countries and major rivers of South America. Ibrahim has some baffling statistic problems to solve for his high-school business class.

But what if these students need help on days that the volunteers don't work at the Columbia branch?

This year, the Seattle Public Library has rolled out a new, online homework assistance program to provide greater outreach to students who need help. It's called Online Homework Help and it's available to anyone with a library card, and up-to-date computer and Internet access.

Every day, from 3 to 10 p.m., students may log on to Online Homework Help through the library's home page at to get help from professional tutors who have subject specialties. Online Homework Help also is offered in Spanish from 3 to 7 p.m. daily.

Students choose their grade level and subject and are connected with a tutor. The tutors, who are paid staff members of, have an expertise in their subject areas that is hard to replicate with volunteers. The sessions operate as an online chat with the student and tutor corresponding with one another in real time. Students and instructors can use a computerized drawing board to form images, formulas and diagrams that they both can see instantly.

Tutors send appropriate web sites to the students to help them get more information about each assignment. A printout of the session is available. As with the volunteer helpers, each tutor is skilled in helping - not doing - the assignment.

Online Homework Help is a wonderful option, but it can't replace the valuable human interaction of the Homework Help Centers, which the library offers at four branches, including Columbia.

At these sessions, screened volunteers who are trained to help without actually doing the assignments work one-on-one with students. Volunteers pledge two or more hours per week for the entire school year to provide the kind of help money can't buy. Real estate agents, school administrators, newspaper reporters and small business owners are just a few of the vocations of the volunteers who work with students enrolled in elementary, junior and high schools and even with some entry-level college students.

Language or cultural differences often are key barriers to students understanding the assignments. In other cases, having a person edit an essay or listen to a presentation and provide feedback turns an unsuccessful learning experience into a satisfying, meaningful experience. The volunteers refer students to librarians for reference assistance and help with accessing databases and using the library's print and online resources. Many students return day after day and the volunteers monitor and encourage students along the way.

Homework help volunteers are at the Columbia branch from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Call 386-1908 for more information.

With all of these options for homework help, students' excuses for not completing their homework just flew out the window. Smiling students and volunteers leave the Columbia branch study rooms with promises to see each other next week.

Carol Lo is the Teen Services Librarian at the Columbia branch of the Seattle Public Library. Share your thoughts with her at

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