INDIANAPOLIS -- About a dozen kids attend a Thursday night tutoring session at the Salvation Army Barton Center in downtown Indianapolis. School on Wheels gets around. Every week, its volunteers visit nine shelters -- including the Barton Center -- and four schools -- helping kids with their homework or tutoring them in subjects like math or reading.
Six-year-old Cliff came to get some help with homework, but he wanted to share an answer to a writing prompt from this evening's session with his mom, Anna.
"I wrote the best toy you ever gave me was a toy named the minions," remebered Cliff.
Some of the families here have fled dangerous situations, and that's why we're honoring a request not to use this family's real names. Anna says her son had a hard time adjusting at his new school when they moved to the neighborhood about a year ago.
"I know for a fact that School on Wheels helped him over the summer prepare for first grade because last year he struggled a lot getting acclimated," Anna said. "It helped him with his social skills and just helped in him get into that routine of going to a program on a strict schedule and get him back into focus."
Chris Wynn, supportive housing case manager at the Barton Center says the apartment complex reserves a number of units to provide permanent housing for homeless families. He says he's there to help families try to feel good about themselves.
"I feel like a lot of my job is encouragement because people really need to know that just because you went through some hard times doesn’t mean that you’re destined to be that way forever," Wynn said.
In any given year, thousands of kids in Marion County are homeless at some point, and while School on Wheels can't reach them all, it does make a difference. The group says that last year, it provided about 7,500 hours of tutoring to more than 350 children.
Laura Alvarado, vice president of programs and community outreach says breakthroughs begin with this daily work and as kids start connecting learning to life.
"If they can start seeing themselves be successful, whether that be in school or after school initiatives, then we can say to them, ‘You can see how your education plays a role in who you want to be,’" Alvarado said.
The group says it’s students change schools an average of three times while homeless. And with every change, they need four to six months to recover academically. School on Wheels' program director, Karen Routt, says that stress takes a toll.
"You get down to the very basic survival mode, and not a whole lot of learning can happen and so you see very quickly those gaps," Routt said.
The group's data indicates they're having some success in closing that gap among the students they serve -- 95 percent of them increased or maintained their grades in at least two subjects over the year.
Alvarado sees the impact in more personal ways.
"The student who in two weeks stops looking down at the ground, thinking, 'Oh my Gosh this is an impossible task, how will I ever break free of this'… to coming in smiling, meeting our staff and saying ‘When will you be back?’" Alvarado said.
That caring and consistent and caring adult influence can make all the difference to a student like Cliff.
"I like the tutor I had today," Cliff said.
"What was his name," asked his mom.
"Andrew," he said.
Andrew Langferman is one of the program's 400 volunteers. He works as a structural engineer, and he has kids of his own. He’s worked with School on Wheels for about three years and says he tries to infuse every lesson with a positive message.
"You can do this, it’s not something that’s above your head," Langferman said. "If you really buckle down and look at it, I can help you with it, and we’ll get through it together."
This story is part of WFYI's American Graduate initiative. Tune in Saturday, October 3 to 90.1 FM, and WFYI One for a day of education programming that explores efforts to raise the high-school graduation rate and improve student outcomes.