Students and tutors of the Cluster Tutoring Program – past and present – were in attendance Nov. 12, at First United Church of Oak Park to celebrate a milestone.

The nonprofit organization has been providing free academic assistance to the youth of the Austin community for 20 years. The church hosted an open house celebration last Thursday at the church.

A group of local churches started the program in 1989, astonished by statistics showing that more than half of Chicago Public School children did not graduate from high school. It started with just seven students and seven volunteers. Today, the program assists nearly 100 students, and has a waiting list of 20 more. Volunteers, mostly from Oak Park, provide one-on-one tutoring to children from kindergarten through high school for 90 minutes once a week.  

Kasheika Cobbins, a student at Triton College studying education, was a third-grader when she started in the program and is now a volunteer there. Cobbins has only words of praise for Cluster.

“My grandmother signed me up because reading was my weakness,” she recalled. “I remember my tutor and I connected immediately. I can recall coming, even when I didn’t have homework, and we would just sit and read the newspaper or books together. Coming here really helped my reading and vocabulary skills.”

Cobbins would go on to be valedictorian of both her eighth and 12th grade classes.

Ten-year-old Jordan Burks has been coming to Clusters for four years. He has had volunteer Vicki Bartlett as his tutor for the last three.

“She’s nice and fun, and helpful,” he says.

Bartlett returns the compliment, describing Jordan as a hard worker. She described a typical tutoring session. “The first thing we do, right away, is homework. Then we will do vocabulary, timetables, read a book, and flashcards – we have plenty of flashcards,” she said. “If time is left at the end, he gets to play a game.”

The program is supported financially by different organizations and individual donors. According to the program’s president, Karen Heller, 40 percent of its overall revenue is from individuals.

“These donations have enabled us to start our reading program, as well as a college readiness program,” she said.

Cluster launched its reading program in 2004.

Danton Floyd, a graduate of William H. Taft High School and currently enrolled at Northern Illinois University, recalled that his tutor, who was a lawyer, was more like a friend.

“I’ll never forget how he would break down problems for me so that I could understand,” said Floyd, whose mother volunteered at Cluster and now sits on its Board of Directors. “We spent a lot of time together outside of the program. We went to baseball games and Great America, and he was just really cool.”

To learn more

The program meets from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Pine Avenue United Church in Chicago on Tuesdays and in Oak Park on Thursdays. For more information, visit