Fitting high-powered tutoring into the school day can be a mammoth undertaking for school leaders looking to help students recoup academic losses from the pandemic years. Nationwide, districts have struggled to find tutors and ensure the kids who most need extra help get it.
But at College Achieve Public Charter School in Asbury Park, N.J., educators have not only figured out how to offer the program during the school day—they’re now seeing academic growth as a result of the carefully tailored, just-in-time intervention.
Jodi Henderson McInerney, the executive director of the two-campus network, which includes a K-9 school serving 522 students, said that students in 5th grade through 7th grade, those the program targets, outperformed their peers from similar economic backgrounds in English/language arts on the state’s assessment.
About 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, and about 60 percent are Black. Thirty-eight percent are Latino.
Here’s how the school did it.
1. It used qualified tutors.
The five tutors—three in English language arts and two in math—are all retired teachers, who each hold a master’s degree or higher in their subject areas, and have more than 30 years of experience, McInerney said. The tutors also had to demonstrate that they’d had good results in their individual subject areas, whether ELA or math, when they were full-time teachers.
Tutors entered academically prepared, but McInerney said they received professional development and onboarding to get them acclimated to the school and its student body.
The school’s regular math and ELA teachers are also enlisted as tutors, with the ELA or math lab, in which the tutoring is provided, counting as one of the six periods they teach daily, McInerney said.
The tutors have become part of the school community, working closely with the students’ classroom ELA and math teachers. (In non-academic areas, they also participate in school dance, prom or other activities, even though they’re not required to.)
2. It maximized the schedule.
The 56-minute, three-times-a-week sessions were added to the school day as special math and English lab periods. No other instructional time was sacrificed, McInerney said.
Largely, the school found the time in the day by being more efficient, including during passing periods and lunch.
As anyone who works in schools knows, putting together a school schedule is a little bit “like brain surgery,” McInerney said. “I can’t get over it sometimes,” she said. “It’s so time-intensive … It’s like a huge moving puzzle.”
But she and her team dug in.
Kids got ID badges with codes they can scan on their way into the building. That eliminated the need to take attendance in homeroom, shaving off several minutes. Overall, the homeroom period lost 20 minutes.
Next, to minimize the transition from class to class, staff were stationed in the hallways—everyone from paraprofessionals to teachers did their part—to keep students moving from A to B as quickly as possible.
“We just got very effective with, ‘Let’s line up, let’s move, let’s go,’” she said. “If you think about it, you can cut two to three minutes off of seven transitions, seven times a day. Minutes add up.”
The school day is also 26 minutes longer than the school day at local public schools, so that also gave administrators some flexibility. They applied that same no-dillydallying efficiency to lunch period.
Embedding tutoring into the school day lines up with research. But McInerney says it matters for other reasons, too.
At first the school tried adding the sessions after school and on weekends, but that didn’t always work with parents’ schedules and clashed with students’ Saturday activities.
Also, many of the students live in communities scarred by violence or in homes with multiple family members, making it hard for children to invite friends over to play. McInerney and her team wanted to avoid taking away the important play time they got in a safe environment on campus.
3. It aligned tutoring with core classroom instruction.
The tutoring sessions are meant to pinpoint core concepts students are missing.
The school uses the FastBridge program, which assesses students six times a year, with the first test in October, on the Common Core State Standards they’re learning and whether they are mastering them. FastBridge provides supplemental work to help teachers and students identify where students may be falling short.
“So if it’s a phonics piece, or a writing piece, or math, it will show exactly where the student needs that extra support,” McInerney said.
An in-house coordinator who manages the program, monitors students’ grades and shares them with each tutor within 24 hours, along with the student’s work and what the student needs to focus on.
“Nothing works if you have nine kids in a room and seven of them have mastered one thing and two have not,” McInerney said. “You don’t want the seven getting bored and not be engaged. This way, you identify what those students need … It helps us to make sure that we are moving our students forward constantly.”
4. It kept tutoring groups relatively small.
The school strives for small groups, ideally about six students to one tutor, with enough flexibility for one-on-one support when necessary.
If students are working on writing math expressions, for example, the tutor can pull aside a student or two to help with them if they need more individualized attention.
While the ratio has occasionally increased to nine students per tutor, the sweet spot is six, she said.
“I feel that it’s more time intensive,” McInerney said. “You can spend more individual time with students, and it also gives you the ability to tackle all that needs to be done for those six students.”
5. It used students’ feedback to make improvements.
McInerney and her staff were aware of how students might respond to the idea that they need tutoring or how they’d be perceived by their peers. So they tried to turn it into a positive thing.
“They don’t want to be pulled out of a class and made to think, ' You’re being pulled out because you don’t know how to do this, this, or this,’” she said.
So instead, educators communicated to students that their teachers thought the tutoring support could help them now and also later with their SATs and future challenges, she said.
The message to students amounted to this: “You are super-bright, and this is to give you that individualized time that you need to work on what you need to work on, and do whatever you want to do,” she said.
To help with that messaging, McInerney, the vice principal, and the school’s supervisor speak to students privately and introduce them to their tutor. They factor in the students’ personalities and whether they’d enjoy working with a particular tutor.
Students are surveyed every other week to gauge their experience and get feedback.
“It gives us some insight on what conflicts they might be having or what they might like to work on or see more of,” she said. “It’s really having the students’ voice telling us how the program is going for them and what they’d like to see to enhance the program. It’s been a tremendous tool for us.”
After all, she said, they are the ones in the tutoring sessions, who are best placed to hear what’s working and what’s not working—and how the school can tweak the program along the way, rather than at the year’s end.
Students aren’t shy about what’s going well or what they’d like to change.
“They are smart kids and they know what they need, and we need to give them every advantage possible,” she said.
Parents are also included. They’re surveyed twice a year, and have shared that they’d like more tutoring time, and that they’re hopeful that tutoring will continue to be available for SAT-prep and college essays as students get older.
McInerney said she’d like to develop a similar support program in every grade, from K-12, and devote more time to it. Students in younger grades are taught by co-teachers, both of whom are certified, who can pull aside students who need assistance.
Tutors can also help at that level, she said.
“It’s beneficial in exposing our students to tremendous people who have done this as a lifetime profession and who really are passionate and fair and can offer their skills to our students,” she said.