How To Start A Program


– Karen Jackson & Wendy Lesko, Co-Founders of SPARK!

Creating and running a community-based tutoring program is a lot of work, but it can help lots of children and also be fun for everyone involved. Our mission at SPARK is to “spark a love of learning.”

Since 1994, we have tried many different approaches and learned by doing. We continue to experiment and expand our base of support from individuals, community organizations, government agencies and, of course, our primary partners – Kensington Parkwood Elementary School and North Bethesda Middle School. We hope the 12 Steps outlined here might help others who are considering how to launch a similar type of tutoring and mentoring program. Good luck!

Students and their families along with tutors at annual SPARK BBQ
Students and their families along with tutors at annual SPARK BBQ

A tutoring program is all about people. You can have lots of money but that is no substitute for the most necessary resource that includes:

  • individuals who are willing to develop and run the program,
  • tutors who volunteer regularly, and become mentors along the way
  • the children who are served

Every community can benefit from a tutoring and mentoring program. There are plenty of children who need help with their schoolwork and who need encouragement from other adults.


The first step is to see who in the community is interested in exploring the idea of such a program.

  • School Connection. Most principals and PTAs will be excited at the prospect of such a community-based program for students. School administrators, teachers, and parents should be approached at the very beginning to get their input.
  • Partnerships. Partnerships can be formed with public libraries, local businesses, corporate offices located in your region, religious organizations, government agencies, and any groups that are interested in the education of children.
  • Core Group. You need at least two people to oversee the whole program. We believe the chance for success is much less if only one person is in charge. There are too many responsibilities such as recruiting tutors and students, applying for grants, purchasing snacks, bookkeeping and any other managerial skills. One cannot overestimate the importance of teamwork to help locate resources, network with other groups, and provide moral support.


Choosing a location is important. Make sure the tutoring site is large enough and convenient for parents to drop off and pick up their children. We decided that the community center was the ideal spot, but other possibilities might include a church or synagogue, recreation hall, apartment social room, or school. The location may determine what time tutoring can be held. If the program is held at school, probably tutoring would occur soon after the school day ends although we would advise a short recess and snack before beginning on homework. Off-school locations may mean meeting in the evening.

The time of day for providing tutoring will impact heavily on the type of volunteers who will be available. Our evening program attracts a diverse group of tutors from different age groups and occupations.

Another decision is to decide on the length of the tutoring program. SPARK sessions run from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. This time frame allows one full hour devoted to schoolwork with some extra time for getting organized at the beginning of the program and a short snack time at the end of the session.


Once a group of community members, parents, teachers, and others are committed to the idea of starting a tutoring program, the next step is to make sure there are enough volunteers willing to be tutors. Recruiting tutors can be done through churches and synagogues, public and private high schools, community newspapers, neighborhood newsletters, local libraries, and finally, by good old word of mouth.

Our most successful method of recruiting is an annual event unique to Kensington: the Labor Day Parade. We march in the parade and pass out hundreds of fliers. Because of the community service-learning requirement for high school students at both public and private schools, many of our tutors are teenagers who get credit for their volunteer hours.


Recruiting students to receive free tutoring can be done in several ways. Children can be recommended by the parents, the principal, teacher, or any school staff who sees the need for help in schoolwork.


Part-time staff. After several months of running SPARK, we recognized the need to get additional help. Without steady support, we would burn out as volunteers. Our program runs quite smoothly due to two important people who each work about than 10 hours per week. Thanks to contributions from the PTA and grants, these are paid positions.

  • Coordinator. This person is present at every tutoring session and pairs up students and tutors. The Coordinator keeps attendance, helps tutors with their questions about specific homework assignments, provides overall supervision, encourages a quiet but upbeat atmosphere, and passes out snacks at the end of the evening. Continuity is important for both the children and volunteers because we make every effort to match a students with the same tutor each session.
  • Parent-Teacher Liaison. This person is the crucial link between the students, tutors, parents, and teachers.
    A key responsibility is to communicate closely with the teachers, school staff and parents. The Liaison regularly obtains updated materials, lesson plans, homework assignments and additional work for each student and also discusses concerns about individual students. This information is passed on to tutors and sometimes parents in order for the entire educational team concentrates on the same academic goals and study skills. The Liaison also is available to represent the tutoring program at school meetings if a parent asks to be accompanied and supported.


Money is certainly helpful to your program but at the beginning, people volunteering their time and getting donations of books, supplies and snacks can get you through the first stages of your program. Once you see your specific program needs, for example, hiring a Coordinator and/or Liaison, you can begin scouting for grants and contributions.

  • Donations. PTAs and private citizens are a good source for donations. You can receive more assistance if you have non-profit status (see Step Seven below).
  • Grants. Information on grants for education can be found on the Internet about local, state and federal government agencies under substance abuse and violence prevention programs (tutoring and mentoring are considered effective prevention tools). Also, look for grants intended to fund After-School programs. Some grants require your organization to be an official non-profit and since it takes several months to become incorporated and obtain tax-exempt status, find another non-profit organization that can act as your fiscal agent temporarily. Some local government agencies also can serve as fiscal agents.


Tax Exempt Non-Profit Status – Call the IRS and obtain the form to apply for non-profit status. Try to get a lawyer pro bono to file these forms for you. When filing for the non-profit status, you will need to create an official board with at least three officers and have a set of bylaws for the organization. A lawyer can tell you what is needed. The cost for filing for a 501 ( c ) ( 3 ) is several hundred dollars. Once the papers are submitted, you will receive confirmation from the IRS and an employee identification number (EIN) to be used if you have any paid employees or independent contractors working for you. Once you have incorporation papers and the IRS ruling that the organization is an official non-profit, you can apply at no cost for a tax-exempt number from the state IRS office. This tax-exempt number is necessary for purchasing items without paying sales tax.


We train our volunteer tutors at least twice a year. Try to have training the week before the tutoring is scheduled to begin, this way information is fresh in the tutor’s mind for the following week. The second time for additional training and review can occur right after winter break at the halfway point during the school year. This is a good way to get feedback from the tutors on how things are going.

  • At the first training session, you can introduce new teaching strategies to be used, tell what a typical tutoring session will be like, answer questions, do a few interactive exercises, and introduce the key players in the program such as the Co-directors, the Coordinator and Parent-Teacher Liaison.
  • At the second mid-year training, specialized training might cover specific subjects such as reading methods or using math manipulatives. This is an opportune time to solicit and discuss ideas and criticisms from tutors.


Materials and handouts for both volunteers and students are important to increase communication and information. Of course, parent/guardian consent forms are a must. It is useful to develop a calendar including the days when there will be no tutoring, for example, official holidays, half days of school, and when school is closed. We suggest you also include the school’s official policy for school closings such as due to weather. The parents and students are familiar with this policy, so the only people who need to be aware now would be the tutors who have no children in the school system. This eliminates the need to telephone everyone about the schedule. A list of emergency telephone numbers is important. These numbers include the people who run your tutoring program and the telephone number of the location of the program in case parents need to call to reach their child.


Evaluation and progress reports help maintain objectives and also serve as a catalyst to make improvements. The school can be of great assistance in creating an pre- and post-evaluation tool to measure a student’s progress. Attendance record, homework completion, reading and math levels, test scores are all solid measurements. To gain this information, it is necessary to obtain parent permission (which can be included on the parent/guardian consent form) to have the school share this academic information with the tutoring program. Grants often require evaluations and also detailed demographic data on the students served by the program.


Networking and strengthening partnerships never stop. Working with the school and PTA regularly is time well spent. It’s important that all parties interested in the education of students work together very closely. Stay in touch with the school about the programs they have in place and see how you can reinforce these skills and goals at tutoring. The PTA represents everyone in the school; they will be good advocates of your program and often have access to resources you don’t know about.

Working with parents is also essential. Parents are the best advocates for their child. They know their child better than anyone. Keep parents in the loop about how their son or daughter is concentrating on the homework and interacting with their tutor. If possible hold parent meeting and another option is to offer workshops. The person who serves as the Liaison can be the contact for the parents when academic problems arise. An ideal time to communicate with a parent is when they drop off or pick up their child. Even if the conversation is not about their child, getting to know them builds rapport.


Expect ongoing challenges but enjoy the wonderful moments of satisfaction watching how well a student gets along with his/her tutor, hearing from a teacher how much more interested the child is in the classroom, or getting positive feedback from a mother about her daughter’s improved study skills.

There will always be a need to find funding for your program, unless you get a great big donor. Publicity in the local newspaper helps to provide credibility about your organization and can be helpful when applying for grants.

Keep the ties between the parents and teachers strong. With everyone working together, many students may do better in school. Involve your volunteers by asking for their suggestions on how to strengthen the program. Make sure they feel valued. Special meetings for tutors and parties with students and tutors can lift everyone’s spirits and increase the commitment of everyone to the program.

Avoid burnout! Know when to step back and take a breath. You can’t do it all. Remember, it’s a team effort.