Alexandria Tutoring Consortium: Keeping Personal Tutoring Alive in the Age of Covid

Pixabay photo by Sofia Lopez Olalde

ALEXANDRIA, VA – On October 14th, Z TV turned to YouTube for a special interview with Yvonne Folkerts and Lisa Jacobs of the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium.

Host Susan Mulligan Fleischman said she was honored to interview a “quiet but strong organization doing a lot of really wonderful work.”

Carrying on a Tradition of Reading

The organization was founded in the late 1990s in response to Alexandria City Public Schools launching the “Primary Initiative” program with the goal that all students read and do math by the end of second grade.

The founders were Reverend Gary Charles, Herbert Berg (ACPS Superintendent at the time), and Judge Steven Rideout, who was then the chief jurist of the Alexandria Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. The program united leaders of faith communities and elementary school principals, teachers, and reading specialists with the objective of providing reading tutors to first and second grade students in the public schools.

You Tube Interview 10/13/2020

In their 24th year, Folkerts, executive director, describes them as a “staple in the school system” as the teachers rely on the ATC to help with the one-on-one tutoring that’s part of the staple of the school system.

“It’s just been a delight to see the students grow and serve,” said Folkerts.

Over the years, the program has shifted from second grade to kindergarten and first grade because there’s a need to catch the students who need extra reading help early. Jacobs pointed The National Institute of Health published research that showed it takes four times as much money and time to catch a child up as it is to teach them to read in the first place.

The volunteers come from a wide swath of the community. In addition to the churches that played an early role in the organization, the tutoring organization has welcomed PTAs, the American Association of University Women, and other civic associations. During the remote learning aspects of 2020, they’ve had more opportunities to include people to their program who live in remote areas.

The primary requirement is that students are available to come in during 45 minutes during the day and have a willingness to participate in the training.

The organization works through research-tested research plans. At the same time, they’re very flexible to learning from each other. That’s where 24 years of institutional knowledge comes in.

“As we’ve learned over the years, tutors have specific questions or hiccups in delivering the curriculum, and so we have troubleshooting training sessions, where if you have a specific issue that you’re struggling with, Lisa and her team bring them in.” said Folkerts. “Sure enough they start sharing, and one tutor might share something that worked with another student, and a staff member says ‘guys why don’t you try this’ and soon enough, we find something to new to work with in the student.”

Crisis in the Pandemic

When the pandemic came, the staff was in a crisis as March is normally the time of year when the students make the most progress.

“The staff normally considers that late early spring period the golden period where the children, their reading levels really zoom up. Their light goes off and their reading really gels,” explained Jacobs.

The goal was to try to find 30 to 50 of the 128 book buddy students and hook them up with tutors. The staff had five key obstacles: 1) Language barriers 2) Technology barriers 3) Families having to move 4) A lack of material and 5) Not being able to find quiet spaces.

To overcome the lack of reading materials, ATC used some of their budget to buy magazine booklets for the kids in need. The rest was a lot of work and ingenuity.

“I know there were nine million reasons why it shouldn’t have worked but the kids proved me wrong. It was amazing,” said Jacobs. “It took every part of our organization to make it happen.”

They ended up working with 101 of the 128 students in the program. Out of those 101 kids, 91% of them finished the program reading at or above the required aptitude level.

The families and the schools loved the program so much that it continued on through the Summer for the first time in history.

A Challenge to Fundraising

When asked about funding, the program has a grant from the city that they use for William Ramsey Elementary School.

In addition to that, they have corporate sponsors and have to do their own fundraising.

They recently launched a book drive to fundraise for the magazine booklets. One of the main obstacles to this year’s altered program is that a lot of the class materials are still in the classroom.

“Virtual tutoring costs more than in-person tutoring for a variety of reasons, but the community just continues to step up and support us,” said Jacobs.

“Times are tough on everybody but the need is still there,” said Fleischman.

The organization’s goal is to grow 15 students a year and Covid hasn’t slowed that pace down so far.

From Capitol Hill to the Non-Profit Sector

Lisa Jacobs was working on Capitol Hill when she met Folkerts as a parent to a T.C. Williams high student. Folkerts was on the board and recommended Jacobs join the board.

“It’s very hard to say no to Yvonne,” said Roberts who has been on the board for two and a half years.

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