Ayan Ismail was failing classes, and she was scared.
A 10th-grader at Roosevelt High School in south Minneapolis, she knew she needed help outside the classroom if she was going to improve her grades.
Little did she know that help was literally only several feet away from school — at the library across the street.
Since 1992, the Hennepin County Library system has offered free after-school tutoring at a dozen facilities on virtually any subject. Next year, three more libraries — Central, Webber Park and Cedar Riverside — will offer the program to students.
"It makes you more disciplined," said Ismail. "If you go to the library, you do more work. If I go home after school, I will watch dramas on TV."
A friend of her sister told Ismail about the program, which is offered at the Roosevelt branch library, directly across 28th Avenue S. from the high school. She immediately had a good feeling about the tutors, who she said appeared genuine in their desire to help her solve problems in mathematics and science.
"I was confused in class," she said. "But the tutors make you understand the subjects. Now, I raise my hand in class."
Nearly 300 people volunteer to be tutors, led by library employees. The program is structured more loosely than a classroom, and online tutoring is available. Funding from the Friends of the Hennepin County Library supports the tutors and provides supplies.
During the 2016-17 school year, more than 1,100 students participated in 16,165 homework help tutoring sessions. In a survey at the end of the school year, almost 75 percent of students in the program said they were doing better in school. About two-thirds said they found it easier to concentrate on homework at the library.
The program has taken different forms as the library and education systems have evolved, said Katherine Debertin, programs and service manager for the county's library system. It's a natural partnership, but the program isn't just about getting homework done, she said.
"Its having one-on-one attention with tutors," she said. "It's about caring adults who can help students get unstuck. It's a pretty quality program."
As children grow into teenagers, research shows they need more caring adults in their lives beyond family members, she said. Getting people to volunteer for the program is a way to engage the community and give residents a chance to give back, she said.
Much of the program's publicity comes through word of mouth, especially in the Somali and East African communities, said Debertin. Often immigrant families may be lacking in some cultural background knowledge necessary to complete schoolwork, she said.
"One girl had an assignment to convert feet into inches, but her background was in the metric system," she said. "Her parents had no concept of this. The tutor measured her."
Some students may not have a place to go after school, so the library becomes a safe haven for them. It's a place where they can turn off their phones and get some work done, said Debertin.
"One of the beautiful things in the library is that we can help with some many things," she said. "Parents can drop off kids or stay in a play area with young siblings. They can work on other things, such as job applications."
Chris Alvarez, a senior at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, heard about the program from a librarian when he was in sixth grade. That's when he began having trouble with math.
His parents decided to take him to the Nokomis library to see if they had any resources to offer. He was hesitant to have a stranger work with him.
"I met with the head tutor. I was pretty nervous because I was an introvert at the time and didn't like talking to anybody," said Alvarez.
But he found the tutor, a man named Steve, very welcoming. He made jokes and looked for things they had in common, Alvarez said. Eventually he trusted him enough to seek help from him in other subjects.
"I learned to advocate for myself in the program, something I didn't express to my teacher," he said. "I'm grateful for everything the program has given me."
Now Alvarez's cousin joins him for tutoring sessions. And he's preparing to attend college.