ALEXANDRIA, VA – When Lisa Jacobs, executive director of the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium (ATC), pulled up in front of a first-grader’s home recently, she was expecting to drop off a bag of books at the front door and not see or speak with anyone.
Instead, the first-grade girl who lives there with her family opened the door and grabbed the bag of books – all the while smiling and very happy.
“It made my day,” Jacobs said, “to see this student so excited to receive books. It just reinforced to me what we’re trying to do is the right thing to do.”
Reconnecting Students to Literacy Tutors
Since mid-April, Jacobs and the professional staff of ATC have been delivering books to the homes of Alexandria City Public School (ACPS) students enrolled in ATC literacy tutoring programs. It is the final step (in a four-step process!) of reconnecting students with tutors to continue tutoring services for the remainder of the school year.
When ACPS cancelled school March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic, ATC’s board and staff debated how it could continue to tutor students.
It didn’t take them long.
“Our mission is simple,” Jacobs said, “We strive to help ACPS students read on or above grade level by the end of kindergarten and first grade. So we just had to figure out how to work around the pandemic and continue helping children learn to read.”
‘Book Buddies’ Program Helps Weaker Students Conquer Reading Skills
ATC serves kindergarten and first grade students in ACPS who have been identified by classroom teachers as being weak in reading skills. In a “regular” school year, ATC trains community volunteers in a proven and effective tutoring program that was developed at the University of Virginia, Book Buddies, and assigns tutors to one of 10 ACPS schools ATC serves. Tutors then meet once or twice weekly with the same student for 30 to 45-minute sessions. Last year, 80 percent of the students in ATC’s programs finished the school year reading on or above grade level.
To address the changes in the school year and give the staff flexibility, ATC’s board took two online votes: first, to restructure the budget to provide more funding for books, knowing students would not be in the classroom and have access to books as students and tutors had been accustomed. Two, the board voted to grant Jacobs and the staff permission to work with ACPS and build a virtual tutoring program. These votes were the first step in retooling tutoring in the era of the coronavirus.
The second step was to connect tutors with students at home and figure out what technology was available in the home to continue tutoring.
Due to privacy regulations, ATC, as an ACPS partner, could not communicate directly with parents to inquire whether their student would like to continue receiving tutoring services through the end of the school year. But roadblocks didn’t stop ATC from wanting to help kids. To respect the privacy parameters and yet reach out to students, Jacobs contacted building principals asking permission for ATC staff to communicate with teachers and ask teachers to reach out to ATC students/parents.
This has worked – and to date, almost 100 Book Buddies students are now signed on to work with ATC until the end of the school year.
The third step was retooling the curriculum. Not having the constant student/tutor/ATC staff interaction in the school day forced changes in the delivery of tutoring. Usually, ATC staff are training volunteers on the UVa curriculum, providing individualized lesson plans, troubleshooting problems, and collecting data on a regular basis to monitor a student’s progress and challenges.
ATC staff decided the best path forward would be to offer a simplified curriculum and for tutors to read books with students. In each pairing, ATC staff work with the families to discern how best to continue the tutoring – it may be reading together over the phone or it may be online.
This led to step four – the final step – reconnecting tutors to students. ATC purchased leveled readers through publishers who also provide online versions of the books, thereby giving tutors access to the same books students will be using. It is these books that Jacobs and ATC staff have been delivering to ATC students.
Pivoting Secures Mission’s Success
“This entire enterprise required flexibility, creativity and a sense of humor,” Jacobs said. “We’ve all worked together. We pivoted to keep our eye on our mission. Not even a pandemic can keep us from trying to help a child learn to read.”
OTHER SCHOOL NEWS: Alexandria’s homas Jeffreson School Named #1 in the Country