Pandemic postpones teen’s summer plans, so she stepped up to help tutor CPS kids for free

Chicago's Very Own

CHICAGO — She was supposed to be spending this summer abroad studying outerspace. But after the trip was postponed due to the pandemic, Ava Penn decided to focus on helping Chicago area students reach for the stars.    

A junior at Whitney Young High School, 16-year-old Penn is just one of 10 American teens selected to this year’s Space Oriented Learning for Americans and Russians, or SOLAR, program

“It’s a six week program where you spend half the time in America and half the time in Russia visiting NASA sites and COSMO sites,” she said.

Although she’s disappointed by the postponement of the trip, she decided to pave the way to help other students to go on future trips.    

“Through the application process I realized that not every student has the opportunity to apply to these programs because not everybody has the educational resources or family support that I have,” Penn said.   

Last year, Penn founded an in person tutoring club called Chicago Teen Mentors. When the pandemic hit, she switched to online tutoring  for math and reading. After passing out flyers throughout the city, the response skyrocketed. 

“We have had 110 tutors sign up,” she said. “And we have 80 active tutors and we have 65 students from 21 schools.”

Ann Sikora-Jackson said a friend stumbled upon a flyer in Smith Park. As a physician’s assistant working on the front lines during this pandemic, this came a quite the relief to have a little teaching help for her children.

“Having the kids home has been very challenging for me as a working mom,” Sikora-Jackson  said. “And my husband also works. He is an essential employee as well.” 

Her daughter Ava is starting  seventh grade and Penn is her math tutor.

 “It’s a big thing to take out of her day, but it’s really helpful to me and I’m sure it’s helpful to her,” Ave said.

The tutoring is offered to third through ninth grade CPS students, with one hour a week per subject. And it’s all free.

 “I wanted to make it accessible to students who can’t afford a tutor and also for students who struggle with remote learning,” Penn said.

She’s preparing for a busy fall season, since it’s still up in the air on how CPS students will learn this coming school year. She’s also started a fundraiser to distribute school supplies. To donate to her cause, visit her GoFundMe page.

Penn’s studies of space exploration may someday take her beyond this world but for now, these parents say she is making a huge impact right here at home. 

Ava Penn is one of Chicago’s Very Own. 

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