bout one in 10 Columbus Police Department officers gives up free time to help children, many from disadvantaged families, complete school assignments.

Started with a grant from the Women’s Giving Circle in November 2012, the Homework with an Officer program initially was offered to elementary and middle school students weekly at the Pence Place Apartments community room in southeast Columbus.

When expansion was discussed last year, the program considered the Heritage Woods apartment complex on McClure Road and surrounding areas, program coordinator John Velten said.

But since the Heritage Woods clubhouse had been converted into offices, the nearby Eastside Community Center agreed to host the weekly tutoring session from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Velten said.

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Two students showed up for the first session at Eastside in March. Four kids showed up the second week, followed by six the week after that.

“We’re well-equipped to handle more kids,” Velten said.

Interested students can call the Eastside Community Center to schedule a session or just show up.

People who expect a stodgy study-hall environment during a Homework with an Officer session are pleasantly surprised.

During a mid-April session, once assignments were completed, the atmosphere began to resemble a Hollywood buddy movie pairing a tough adult with a heart of gold and a cute, rambunctious kid.

One girl playfully rubbed the top of patrolman Paul Garnett’s hairless head. Another stretched officer Courtney Plummer’s plentiful locks across her face to make a faux beard and mustache.

While Plummer winced a few times at having her hair pulled, the patrolwoman’s face displayed patience and friendship.

As apples and fruit juice were distributed and students enjoyed coloring, patrolman Ben Quesenbery noted how hesitant some of them were initially about participating in the program.

At first, youngsters expected tough and rugged characters straight out of TV crime dramas with an out-to-getcha attitude toward everyone, Velten said.

“To be truthful, so were some of the moms and dads,” he said.

Viewed as friends

But trust and bonds of friendship begin to blossom within a month, Quesenbery said.

“Now, they come flying in with their backpacks, call us by our first names and give us a hard time,” Quesenbery said. “It’s great to see they don’t view us as police officers in a uniform. We’re viewed as friends now.”

After David Constantino-Tipton, the father of three girls in the Pence Place program, died unexpectedly in February, some of the children learned just how much special they were to their tutors and cop buddies.

When the officers saw that Sarah, Alejandra and Genni had stopped coming, they learned it had been their dad who had been taking them to the homework program.

As their mother couldn’t do it because of her work schedule, Velten said, there was no way he and his fellow officers were going to accept the sad circumstances.

“We missed those kids and said to ourselves: ‘Those girls are our friends now,’” Velten said.

Now, he picks up the three from school every Monday afternoon, assists them at the homework session and makes sure the girls are returned home safely.

“They love getting picked up in a police car,” Velten said with a grin. “They always fight over who gets to ride in the front seat.”

The girls’ mother, Tiffaney L. Moore Tipton, left work early April 20 so she could give each officer a handwritten thank-you note for going above and beyond the call of duty for her children.

Sgt. Matt Harris, who was Indiana’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Officer of the Year in 2010, said police officers understand the circumstances that today’s children can find themselves in.

“The types of problems that fifth- and sixth-graders are doing? That was stuff we were doing in middle or high school 20 years ago,” Harris said. “There are far more difficult equations and problems at a younger age.”

Novice educators

While all current officers of the Columbus Police Department have a college degree, none is a trained teacher, and the homework sessions often result in unexpected academic challenges.

“One of our girls, who is in fourth or fifth grade, I couldn’t do her homework without help,” Velten said.

Students are being taught differently from what officers recall from their own school days, Quesenbery said.

“That’s a learning curve for us,” he said.

But due largely to patience, as well as online tutoring aides, challenges are conquered, Garnett said.

“At the end of the day, we’ll work through it and put our heads together, Quesenbery said. “There’s a lot of good interaction and cooperation.”

“It also helps that Officer Garnett is really a math whiz,” said Jill Sharp, public housing manager for the Columbus Housing Authority, which was instrumental in developing the program.

“Uh-uh,” Garnett said in reaction to Sharp’s compliment. “Courtney Plummer is the real math whiz in this room.”

What isn’t disputed is that being a novice educator has become a part of these officers’ lives.

Many also are involved in teaching the DARE curriculum, a citizens academy, driving courses, self-defense classes and a variety of other outreach programs, Harris said.

While their participation in “Homework with an Officer” is optional, the tutors are compensated, Harris said.

Since many officers also have a military background, they are trained to mix the right amount of discipline with a tender, caring attitude, Harris said.

“These kids crave structure,” Harris said. “We want to teach them the right way to do things and the right choices to make in their lives. In that way, you couldn’t ask for better role models.”

Program volunteers

These seven Columbus Police Department officers are volunteering their off-time for the Homework with an Officer program.

  • Paul Garnett
  • Ben Quesenbery
  • Courtney Plummer
  • James Scott
  • John Velten
  • Brian Voyles
  • Zach Wright

Homework with an Officer

4 to 5 p.m. each Monday at Pence Place Apartments community room, 595 Pence Ave., Columbus.

4 to 5 p.m. each Tuesday at the Eastside Community Center, 421 McClure Road, Columbus.

Information: Officer John Velten at 812-376-2600.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.