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By Mary Niederberger

Jaion Pollard, 7, stepped away from his laptop at The Pittsburgh Project’s Northside after-school program, raised his hands in the air and danced. He had just provided his tutor with the correct answer to a homework problem.

On the laptop screen, his after-school tutor, Mckenzie Taylor, a student teacher from Carlow University, shared in his celebration with a smile.

Jaion, a second-grade student at Manchester Academic Charter School, and Taylor have been paired this winter and spring in a virtual relationship that helps Jaion catch up on academic skills he missed during the pandemic. Their partnership also provides Taylor with one-on-one and small group tutoring experience she stood to miss out on because of pandemic school closures and visitor limits.

Jaion might not understand the complexities of pandemic learning loss, but he knows that it’s “fun” to work with “Miss Mckenzie” and that “she is nice.”

Jaion Pollard, 7, listens to instructions from tutor McKenzie Taylor. Photo by Heather Mull.

Students falling behind

The tutoring program that connected the duo was designed by ASSET Inc. to provide “high-dosage” tutoring to students in grades K-12 in under-resourced neighborhoods and to give student teachers an opportunity to make up for hours of hands-on learning time they lost during the pandemic. So-called high-dosage tutoring involves meeting one-on-one or in very small groups with students three times per week.

A national analysis done by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit education organization and testing company, showed that students in grades 3 to 8 returned to classes last fall 9 to 11 percentage points behind in math and 3 to 7 percentage points behind in reading. The results were worse for Black, brown and low-income students.

Locally, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported that state test scores for the 2020-2021 school year, released by the state Department of Education in early March, showed proficiency rates in English language arts, math and science were down significantly across the Pittsburgh Public Schools. In some cases, the declines were between 20 to 30 percentage points.

“There are two sets of learners affected by the pandemic. You have your K-12 students and the teachers who are in training. We were watching cohort after cohort of teachers not getting the experience they would normally have,” said Sarah Toulouse, executive director of ASSET, which created the virtual tutoring program.

Called PALS, which stands for Partnerships to Advance Learning in STEM, the tutoring project is funded through grants from the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation. Though it is STEM-focused, tutors work with students in all subjects.

PALS is operating through three out-of-school-time providers that serve the Northside, Lincoln-Larimer and Sheraden neighborhoods. In addition to the Pittsburgh Project, they are Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center and HOPE for Tomorrow. ASSET provides equipment, including laptops, document cameras, headphones and wifi hotspots.

To date, students from a dozen Pittsburgh Public Schools have participated in PALS tutoring. In addition, the program has served students from Manchester Academic, Young Scholars, Urban Academy and Urban Pathways K-5 College charters schools and parochial school Nazareth Prep.

While most preservice teachers were able to be placed as classroom student teachers during the pandemic — sometimes in remote settings — those who needed “high-dosage” tutoring hours required for their degrees did not get the same access, according to officials from the universities involved in the PALS program.

Training future teachers

“[PALS] doesn’t only provide help with learning loss with children, it’s also helping to support our preservice teachers to get the hours they need to become a certified teacher,” said Tanya Baronti, apprenticeship coaching coordinator in the education and liberal studies department at Carlow University.

Baronti said the state eased its requirement on hours of service for student teachers during the pandemic to allow them to graduate. But that move left college students without the professional experience they need to be successful as teachers.

Even as pandemic restrictions ease, at least for the present, Baronti said she’s hoping the PALS program continues because it makes it easier for college students to participate in tutoring. The after-school hours work well with the student teachers’ academic demands and the virtual setting eliminates transportation issues and sharpens the tutors’ online skills. The virtual setting also eliminates geographical barriers that would have prevented students from outside of the Pittsburgh area from participating.

The PALS program started on a small scale in the spring of 2021 with about a dozen students, mostly from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and a handful of student tutors from Duquesne University and Westminster College. The effort was a collaboration between ASSET, the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative and A+ Schools.

Duquesne senior Jessica Cetorelli was among the first group of online student tutors. Initially, she struggled to connect with students in the virtual environment where they could easily walk away or turn their cameras off.

She worked hard to keep her students engaged and used sites such as Toy Theater that provided free virtual toys and manipulatives for lessons. For a lesson about measures of volume, she searched her home for various containers to hold up on the screen to help a student visualize the size difference between a cup and a liter.

Cetorelli rewarded a student who liked Curious George books with reading pages of a book together if she finished her lesson early. With other students, she played hangman on a whiteboard if they completed their assignments.

“There are little things you can do with the students that I learned,” she said.

Tutoring at after-school centers

After the trial, ASSET partnered in the fall of 2021 with Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center on a tutoring model that involved students from local schools coming to the center after school to participate in virtual tutoring. The tutor base was expanded to include student teachers from East Stroudsburg, Eastern and Marywood universities and Juniata college.

During this model, the tutors learned the challenges of working with students in an after-school provider setting. There were more distractions than when the group of students participated from home.

“They became aware of the chaotic nature of tutoring in an after-school center atmosphere,” Toulouse said.

In January, the program expanded once again with a partnership with Carlow University and the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown. Currently, 40 Carlow tutors and 13 UPJ tutors work with between 90 and 100 students in after-school programs. There is also a small contingent of students from Manchester Academic Charter School who connect with tutors from their homes.

During a recent session at The Pittsburgh Project, Aubrey King, 7, a second-grade student at Manchester Academic, worked on money values with tutor Natalie DiGiorno, a student teacher from Carlow.

“We already did coins. Now we are doing dollar bills,” Aubrey said.

Tutor Natalie DiGiorni uses a whiteboard to teach a lesson on money values. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

DiGiorno said her tutoring experience “was a little intimidating at first” but with the training and online support provided by ASSET, she has grown more comfortable with the online setting and has found ways to connect with the students.

At the beginning of each session, DiGiorno makes a point of asking the students about their day. Sometimes the question gets little response. But at other times, students unload the baggage of their day.

“I had one little girl telling me she wasn’t having a good day. She was punched at school. I talked her through it and told her she should let her teacher know. Right after, I could tell she was so much more engaged with me. She knew I wanted to help and cared about her,” DiGiorno said.

“Honestly I just try to be someone that they look forward to seeing. Most of the time I have typically the same students that I work with and it’s so nice that they are so excited when they come on the screen.”

Nina Girard, associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown, said the PALS program provided some of her student teachers with their first experience dealing with students from urban settings.

“That has been invaluable as future educators to see the kind of different needs and challenges of students,” Girard said.

Jasmine Davis, an early childhood consultant who is working on a master’s degree in early childhood education supervision at Carlow, said she so enjoyed her experience tutoring with PALS that she has continued the work even though she met the required hours for her academic course.

Davis got to experience the program from both sides as Jaion is her son. Both of them started in the program early this year, but Davis initially had no idea her son was in the same program.

“He would come home and say he loved his tutor. He was very excited about the experience, which to me was surprising because he didn’t give that energy at home with his homework,” Davis said.

Now that he knows his mother is a PALS tutor, Jaion has promised to give her the same enthusiasm at home when doing homework.

Toulouse said when the college semesters are completed this spring, ASSET staff “will be debriefing” and “refining” in preparation for fall when the PALS program will resume in partnership with Carlow. ASSET is also seeking federal and state funding to add additional universities and out-of-school-time providers.

She hopes the program will serve as a model for other communities.

“I see this as one of the many ways we can get at accelerated learning … We are really excited to grow it,” Toulouse said.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at niederbergerme@gmail.com & on Twitter @MaryNied.

This story is a part of PLAYING THE LONG GAME: Rebounding from unfinished learning, an on going series about pandemic learning in Pittsburgh made possible by support from The Grable Foundation.