Library system provides help for students with homework

Don’t let Blaine Westby’s age fool you. He may only be in eighth grade but the 13-year-old Sumner Middle School student already knows the career he hopes to pursue.

Blaine Westby gets free online help with a linear equation Wednesday at the Sumner library.

Don’t let Blaine Westby’s age fool you. He may only be in eighth grade but the 13-year-old Sumner Middle School student already knows the career he hopes to pursue.

“I really want to go into engineering,” he said. “To do that, I’ll need to be strong in my math skills.”

Blaine said he enjoys his favorite subject – Washington state history — but when it comes to acquiring confidence in algebra, that’s another story. That’s why he’s tapped on to the availability of Pierce County Library system’s Live Homework Help, an online tutoring program for library patrons.

“I need help in understanding the formulas,” he said.

In a classroom of 30 students, it isn’t always easy to receive the explanations Blaine said he needs in order to understand the process of solving equations – or “parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, addition and subtraction ( PEMDAS),” he said.

And he hasn’t been lucky in getting help from home – not that his family hasn’t offered it.

“He’s using a different math than I ever did,” said his mom, Nikki Helle. “These kids are smarter and learning more now than when I was in school.”

“And my dad is really good at math but he uses an older way of solving,” he said.

To get the help he needs, Blaine logs on to library’s Web site and clicks on “services,” then “Live Homework Help.” He enters his library patron number and gets in line for a tutor.

“Usually there’s a wait so I get in queue until my turn comes up,” he said.

When it does, the tutor asks for his first name, grade and subject level. Personal information cannot be revealed and tutors are professionally trained to stay on the academic topic, with sessions limited to one hour each.

In an online session last week, Blaine logged on to the site then explained to his tutor that he was using linear equation applications in algebra. After he types the problem into the instant messaging box, the tutor will usually ask him to show how he would solve it using the digital white board.

“They don’t solve it for me,” he said. “But they’ll stop me if they see where I’m going wrong and then help.”

That kind of help is exactly what’s clicked for Blaine and has given him the confidence he said he needed in math.

“I told my parents and teacher, Mrs. Whiteman, about it and that it clicks. I love it when that happens, because it’s like I get it. And if my hour is up and I still need help, I just log on again or I’ll log on when I get home. I like to take my time and understand it, step by step.”

That’s just the response PCLS Communications Director Mary Getchell and its staff want to hear.

“At the end of each session the tutor asks a series of four questions and invites comments,” she said. “It’s sweet to hear some of the things the students are saying. They’ll say how much clearer they are now after getting the directions (to solve their problem.) It’s been well received.”

The positive feedback isn’t just from PCLS, however.

“We hear from parents and teachers who tell us what an absolute dream it is,” she said. “The (teachers) aren’t there at the end of the day at 6 p.m. to answer questions. But Live Homework Help offers the component of learning.”

It may offer learning, but not the answers.

“It’s not the easy button,” she said.

Getchell said the online tutoring provides a learning mechanism students in grades 4 through 12 — as well as college intro, Running Start and adults seeking help with resumes, general equivalency diplomas and grammar — can apply to their lessons.

Since PCLS incorporated the program, usage increased by 28 percent in 2008 compared to its first year of PCLS inception in August 2007 and was used by 1,200 students per month. Adding to those numbers is the availability of help with Spanish speakers that included nine sessions in December, she said.

Gaging the program’s success comes down to the confidence students receive.

“Eighty-nine percent of the students said they are more confident in school because of Live Homework Help,” Getchell said.

And confidence is what it’s all about for Blaine.

“I can log on if I’m confused and they’ll help me,” he said. “And without this program I probably would eventually learn it, but I wouldn’t know as much. I’ve told my teacher that I’ve been getting help and she said, ‘Good. Keep it up.’”

And with his eyes set on the engineering profession, that’s exactly what Westby hopes to do.

The Pierce County Library’s Web site is www.piercecountylibrary.org.

Reach Judy Halone at jhalone@courierherald.com or 360-802-8210.

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