Program connects UChicago students to public schools in neighboring communities

Support and tutoring available to more than 3,000 students per year on the South Side

A week into tutoring, Rose Coughlin’s ninth-grade student started to get the hang of systems of equations.

In their first sessions, Coughlin, a fourth-year student in the College studying mathematics and economics, had used the special colored pens she brought to note key terms for him. Now, he was underlining the terms by himself and solving problems using the strategies she taught him.

Moments like this were why Coughlin, who has worked for the University’s Neighborhood Schools Program (NSP) since January 2020, signed up to tutor in the first place: to pursue her passion for public education and give back to the community during her time at UChicago.

Whether it’s serving as a leader in the classroom, or connecting with students through one-on-one tutoring, Coughlin’s experiences have taught her about the impact that strong role models can make.

“With the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher shortage and COVID-19 learning loss, students need more one-on-one attention than ever,” Coughlin said. “Everyone learns differently and is at different levels when it comes to math or reading or science, and personalized attention can help each student learn what they need in order to meet grade level standards.”

‘Meaningful, enriching experiences’

Since its founding in 1976, NSP has played an important role in pairing UChicago students with schools in the University’s neighboring communities such as Woodlawn and Washington Park. Over the past five years, more than 2,000 University students have dedicated nearly 76,000 hours of support to local schools and families. NSP partner sites include elementary, middle and high schools; community centers and government offices.

In addition to its “core” classroom assistant program, NSP offers targeted initiatives such as Maroon Tutor Match and Jumpstart. Through Maroon Tutor Match, students are matched one-to-one with a tutor outside of traditional school hours and at a significantly reduced cost in comparison to most individualized programs. Jumpstart, the program’s preschool component, gives UChicago students the opportunity to plan fun and educational activities for preschool children and act as classroom leaders.

Brandi Snodgrass has served as NSP’s Director of Neighborhood Schools Partnerships since 2018, managing more than 50 partnerships with schools, community centers and government offices. 

Taking the NSP Director job was a deeply personal decision: her mother worked as a CPS teacher on the South Side for more than 35 years.

“She always inspired me through her work,” Snodgrass said. “When I learned about NSP, I thought it was an incredible civic engagement program at the University that supported the local schools and could also connect students to some really meaningful and transformational relational experiences through service.”

Snodgrass and the rest of the NSP leadership team have been supportive of students with big goals in mind. When Ben Samuels-Kalow, AB '12, was a student in the College, he noticed how Hyde Park Academy students were in need of college application essay and general writing assistance. So with the support of NSP, he started a creative writing club to help those students sharpen their composition skills.

Building on that experience, in 2019 Samuels-Kalow founded Creo College Prep, a charter school in The Bronx, N.Y., that serves students in grades five through eight.

Greg Mason, principal of Murray Language Academy, has worked with NSP for more than 10 years. He recalled a particular eighth-grade student who was struggling academically until they were connected to an NSP tutor. 

The tutor joined a team effort, along with the student’s teachers and mentors, to help the student focus and set goals for the future. According to Mason, the student now continues to excel in high school. 

“You can see how the NSP students are impacting these youths through their, in my opinion, authority and expertise,” Mason said.

Rebuilding after remote learning

Educators continue to face challenges as schools across the U.S. grapple with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chicago Public Schools are no exception. 

Snodgrass said that national teacher shortages and learning loss recovery from early-COVID remote teaching environments are two of the primary concerns she is hearing from NSP’s school partners. For his part, Mason is currently working on re-acclimating both tutors and his students back to the school environment. 

During the first two years of the pandemic, NSP offered remote work options for UChicago students in an effort to reach as many families as possible, but now the focus has shifted back to in-school support. 

Snodgrass says the UChicago students currently working are doing a “phenomenal job in supporting students and there’s always more work to do.” 

To help make up the ground lost during the pandemic, NSP is actively looking for more tutors. She emphasized that jobs can be tailored to each student’s interest and time commitment. 

When former Murray Elementary School teacher Cozette Carter worked with NSP tutors between 2014 and 2022, she started by having a conversation with the tutor about their interests, which could include working with students individually or in small groups, or helping her by grading papers. 

No matter a student’s ability level, Carter said, working with a NSP tutor can be helpful. For lower-performing students, tutoring sessions serve as an additional chance to work on problems together. For higher-performing students, sessions are a unique opportunity to learn from a college student.

“It was beautiful both ways,” Carter said.

And the skills gained extend beyond the classroom: Coughlin’s tutoring experience helped her land her first job at the CPS purchasing department. Now, she does public finance investment banking, which deals with funding for governmental entities like schools.

Students interested in getting involved with NSP can view current openings on the program’s website. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis throughout the academic year, and through the summer.

“My first year, I didn’t go outside of campus that much until I started doing NSP,” Coughlin said. “It’s cool because you are pushed to leave campus and get in touch with the community. There’s a lot more in Hyde Park than just the University of Chicago.”