Tutoring program helps students make the grade in their new home

Mentors who share a common experience with students are an important part of the Homework Circle

Using everything from fraction games and make-your-own-book projects to soccer tournaments and campus tours, Empowerment Squared’s Homework Circle is helping newcomer youth imagine a brighter future through education.


The program is supported by ABACUS, HCF’s 10-year initiative to increase high-school graduation and post-secondary access in Hamilton. Through ABACUS, the Homework Circle will provide one-on-one tutoring, mentoring and academic goal setting to remove educational barriers for as many as 100 at-risk and newcomer middle-school students each year.

Executive director Leo Johnson says that 75 percent of the youth have first languages other than English. Ninety percent have been placed in a grade much higher than their academic ability. “Without support, they won’t have enough credits to graduate high school,” he says.

ABACUS support expanded the Homework Circle program to middle-school youth, but it builds on seven years of success. Past participants are now a lawyer, psychiatric nurse and chiropractor. Twelve-year-old Nawel wants to be a doctor. “I’m in Grade 6 now but sometimes they give me Grade 7 work,” she says. “This program changed my life. They never give up on you.”

Participants can often see themselves in the mentors, many of whom come from McMaster’s African Students Association, Muslim Students’ Association, Nu Omega Zeta (Canada’s first Black-focused sorority), McMaster’s Polish Society and Mohawk College’s Living Lab Program.

“My family immigrated to Canada,” says a Nu Omega Zeta mentor. “I understand the kids’ struggles. And I know how important literacy is to university.”

The Homework Circle integrates ABACUS findings that show parental engagement directly affects how likely children are to pursue education beyond high school. A six-week digital literacy program teaches parents key computer and Internet skills, including how to use online translation tools and navigate school board websites, so they can better participate in their children’s education. They leave the program with a fully loaded computer.

Additional support from HCF’s Edith H. Turner Foundation Fund has allowed the program to handle the overwhelming demand, including from Syrian youth.

“Our biggest success is when kids trust us enough to say they don’t know something,” says Leo. “Once we get them to a place of self-confidence, they amaze us.”