M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
Tools for academic success 

Roberto Gil, center, of Sacred Heart Community Service Homework Club helps Giovanni Moreno, 8, Samantha Brizuela, 12, and Selena Villalobos, 12, of San Jose, complete their homework. The after school program provides youth with the help and tools to advance academically. The Homework Club needs some new computers.

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( Maria J. Avila / Mercury News)

By Mike Frankel / Mercury News

The students haven't arrived yet, but Roberto Gil knows time is running short. While the kitchen crew is busy preparing snacks for four dozen kids who will be tromping through the door any minute with backpacks and pencil cases, Gil has a frustrating task.

He's booting up the Homework Club's computers. All four of them.

They're a mismatched bunch of Silicon Valley leftovers — a mishmash of PCs from an era when Pentium II chips were breaking ground.

Every second — or, in this case, every four or five minutes of boot-up time — counts.

"You won't believe how long it takes," said Gil, the club's youth education coordinator, as the first of the kids starts trickling in. "If I wait until the kids need to use them, 10 minutes could pass, and they start talking, and you just lose them."

Homework Club
Marlon Villalobos, 10, of San Jose, completes his daily reading at Sacred Heart Community Service Homework Club.

(Maria J. Avila / Mercury News)
But year after year, they keep coming back to the Homework Club, an after-school destination at Sacred Heart Community Service's facility just south of downtown San Jose. Here, in this bright, big room with the high ceiling and the mural of planets swirling in the sky, kids lucky enough to emerge from the waiting list hit the books four days a week with a posse of volunteers ready to help explain things like the difference between circumference and perimeter — and how to recognize a run-on sentence.

"Hi, sweet girl. How was school?" Sacred Heart's education director, Bridget Hayden, asked as the students arrived from nearby Willow Glen Middle School, Galarza, Washington, River Glen and other elementary schools. "Hey, good looking," she said, slapping another hand with a high-five.

Most club members are bilingual from Spanish-speaking homes, where things like rent and dinner come before RAM upgrades and flat-screens.

At Selena Villalobos' house, the computer is so ancient that she and her 10-year-old brother, Marlon, gave up trying to play their favorite CD math game. Even Pac-Man freezes the old machine that their parents moved into a corner a few years ago. "I don't think we've turned it on since," said Selena, a Willow Glen Middle School seventh-grader.

So when it comes to online research, it's either the library or the Homework Club. Selena, 12, knows planning ahead is important, especially with up to 70 students on the busiest days competing for the four computers. On this afternoon, there's an opening, and there's a report on the Muslim empire due in social studies.

She scoots into a seat, wiggles the mouse and double-clicks on Internet Explorer. The churning begins. And the churning continues. Slowly, the browser pops up with the death knell for any report: The network is down.

But a girl whose home computer has become a makeshift coat rack takes these things in stride. "Since it's not due until later this month," she said, "I'll just do some other homework."

Hayden, who took over as Sacred Heart's education director about 2-1/2 years ago, is well-positioned to point out the challenge Homework Club kids face. Years ago, she taught at Faria Elementary in Cupertino, one of the state's top-performing schools. She's familiar with a loosely attributed statistic that's become gospel among educators out to illustrate the reading gap: Middle class children spend up to 1,700 hours reading with an adult before they start school, she says. For the average low-income child, reading hours plummet to about 25.

That's why tutors stress language arts and math skills at the Homework Club and closely track each student's progress, giving extra attention when it's needed and extra work to help push the brightest along.

One of the stars is Jasmine Munoz, a Willow Glen middle-schooler, who is aiming for a spot at Notre Dame High School, the private, all-girls school in San Jose. She has seen how buckling down on academics paid off for her two brothers, Maximino and Zenen, both Homework Club alumni now at Bellarmine Prep. Impressive when you consider their father is a roofer who didn't attend high school.

Junior Bobadilla is a 24-year-old tow truck driver who goes way back with Homework Club — 16 years, to be precise. He has seen the club flourish, he said, and seen its impact on a generation of kids who grew up in a place where finding acceptance often means turning to gangs.

"I had a safe place to come after school," said Bobadilla, as the students scurry past bookshelves and board games and the row of clunky computers on their way to snacks. "I always ask myself, if I didn't get involved in this place, where would I end up?"

Wish Book readers can help the Homework Club modernize the educational experience for its members by donating to purchase 10 new PCs ($550 each).

Questions about Wish Book stories? Call coordinator Holly Hayes at (408) 920-5374.

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