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Wooster’s virtual tutoring program offers educational aid to students during pandemic

Wooster virtual tutoring program

An elementary student in Wooster City Schools receives assistance from a College of Wooster volunteer tutor through the district's new collaborative program.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is an example of Solutions Journalism, which aims to move the community conversation forward by asking the simple question, 'What can we learn from others?' Instead of dwelling on a problem (in this case, the challenges facing education during a pandemic), Solutions Journalism looks elsewhere for potential answers. Click here to see the rest of our Solutions work.

WOOSTER – Like many aspects of life, education has become more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students and teachers are having to adapt to new rules, with less face-to-face interaction and more online instruction. There are masks and mute buttons and mandatory health protocols – all designed to ensure the health and safety of those involved, but simultaneously complicating the learning process.

Fortunately for students in one Ohio community, through a unique collaboration between a school district and its nearby college, additional educational help is just a click away.

Wooster City Schools has partnered with the College of Wooster to provide free, virtual tutoring for its K-12 students. Using Microsoft Teams, K-12 students are able to schedule 30-minute tutoring sessions with college students on a variety of topics – everything from elementary Spanish to high school algebra.

District and college officials say the program, which now involves 86 college tutors, has helped K-12 students gain much-needed educational assistance during the pandemic. It has also strengthened the bond between the college and its surrounding community, allowing students to serve local families during a time of need.

“We are pretty proud of it,” said Karen Arbogast, director of elementary education at Wooster City Schools. “I could not be more grateful. This isn’t our thing, this is something that the College of Wooster created, and we’re so lucky to be able to benefit from it.”

According to Matthew Broda, chair of the College of Wooster education department, conversations about the initiative began early this summer. The department was thinking of ways it could give its students real-world teaching experience during the coming school year, while also abiding by state and local health guidelines.

“One of the things that we knew we were not going to be able to do, because of all the pandemic stuff, is actually put our students physically into the field,” Broda said. “And so we were trying to create what we would consider to be electronic field experiences for our students.”

Meanwhile, Wooster City Schools was looking for ways to assist students who would be participating in virtual learning the coming year. District officials saw the challenges looming – particularly for students with working parents who might not be home to help – and began searching for potential solutions.

As it turns out, the answer was right next door.

“It was a great combination between a need that we had – we really wanted to get electronic field experiences, we wanted to support our community – and Wooster had this big opening that they were trying to fill,” Broda said, “to make sure their students had someone else they could log on to get help from.”

The school district and college had partnered before, through student teaching and various after-school programs. But they’d never collaborated on this scale – joining forces to create a districtwide tutoring program that would impact hundreds, if not thousands, of students.

“We’ve partnered with them for multiple other things …” Arbogast said. “They’ve served as mentors for our students and they’ve done some other volunteer-type things, but never in this formalized tutoring model. This is new for this school year.”

How they made it happen

The college and K-12 technology departments worked together to build a sign-up platform that would allow students, parents and teachers to learn about the program and schedule an appointment in one place.

The platform, constructed on a simple Google Sites link, allows K-12 families to choose what content area their student needs tutoring in; what date and time work best for a 30-minute tutoring session (tutors are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday-Friday, and students must schedule 12 hours in advance); and what College of Wooster tutor they’d like to work with, if they have a preference.

K-12 students are required to enter their name, grade level, and some specifics about the area they need tutoring in. Once they click “Book” to schedule their appointment, both the K-12 student and the college tutor will receive an email notification with a link to begin the session when the time comes.

The program is run through Microsoft Teams, a video-conferencing platform similar to Google Hangouts or Zoom. Students can download the Teams app to participate in tutoring sessions, or they can simply join by using Google Chrome or a Microsoft web browser.

The program is free to any K-12 student who wants to participate. The College of Wooster student tutors are volunteers, and according to Arbogast, the only thing the initiative has cost Wooster City Schools is "manpower."

“It’s been an all-hands-on-deck type thing,” she said, referencing the technology department’s efforts to develop the platform. The district has created some publicity pieces, advertising the program to parents, but other than that, Arbogast said “it has not provided an additional cost for us.”

While the school district alerted parents of the opportunity, the college began recruiting volunteer tutors. Broda said the program was marketed to the entire student body, not just education majors. The response was overwhelming.

“The call that went out to ask them was just, ‘If you have an interest in working with young people and helping your community, let us know.’ And so it was really more a call for students to be a part of where they're going to school, because a lot of our students are not from here …” Broda said.

“This current generation of college students, they want to be very involved. That's something that is important to them. And for all of us in higher education, in terms of thinking about how we shape our own curriculum, trying to develop experiences in our teaching setting that allows students to be a part of change and to be a part of making an opportunity or a system better is something that really compels them.”

College of Wooster

College of Wooster

Broda said the department initially expected around 10 students to volunteer. He was not shocked, however, to see the program take off like it did.

“I'm excited, but I'm also not surprised that we had so much interest …” he said. “When you ask them for help, they will help and they want to help. It's not out of an obligation or something they're trying to put on a resumé. It's because they feel like that's a good thing, an important thing to do.”

Of the 86 students who signed up to become volunteer tutors, only a quarter are education majors, according to Broda. There are students studying French, Spanish, math and science. There are tutors majoring in political science and “any of the humanities you can think of.”

“It's been amazing,” Broda said. “It has not been just a pocketed group that's been promoted within a department … I think that's evidenced by the fact that you can get tutored in almost anything at any point during the day, because we're pulling from that many different departments.”

As applications began rolling in, four education majors were selected as “lead tutors” for the program. They would each lead a team of 20 or so tutors, monitoring sessions (which are recorded) and providing feedback.

In the beginning, they were charged with creating training videos for prospective tutors to watch. These students were tested on the videos afterwards, and those who passed were then required to complete a background check with Wooster City Schools, to ensure they would be a quality fit for the program.

Once the college had its tutors selected, K-12 families were able to begin scheduling appointments. The program officially kicked off in September and has grown increasingly popular ever since.

“Right now, we have 40 sessions scheduled,” Arbogast said last Wednesday, looking at the calendar. “We’re hoping to increase that.”

Beneficial to students at all levels

Both K-12 and college officials are calling the program a success through the first month-plus.

The program has given K-12 students an opportunity to ask questions and get additional help on difficult subjects (Arbogast said math has been the most popular content area so far). While college tutors are not providing supplemental teaching (i.e., teaching new material or planning lessons for students), they are able to field questions and help students study or review material.

Sometimes that means reviewing a math concept, such as long division, or reading a draft essay. Sometimes it means having a conversation in Spanish, if a K-12 student is working on becoming more fluent in the language.

Arbogast said the program has proven particularly beneficial to students who are struggling with remote learning. Wooster City Schools is currently operating under a hybrid model, with students attending in-person class two days per week, and many students are also enrolled in the district’s full-time digital academy. The virtual tutoring program has given these students an outlet to find additional help.

“For any content area there is going to be someone available to help you at many, many times during the day,” Broda said. “Whether you just want to sit down and speak French for a half an hour to practice your language, or if you are a second grader and you're still working on some of your reading acquisition skills, there's someone that's ready for you and is excited to do it.”

Wooster City Schools

The Wooster City Schools Board of Education office is located at 144 N. Market St. in downtown Wooster.

For college-aged tutors, the program has provided a sense of connectivity (albeit virtual) during a time of separation. It has allowed them to feel like they are helping the community during a time of need.

“College is a very different experience right now,” said Broda, noting that Wooster is currently offering a mix of virtual and in-person instruction. “Normally on a college campus, you have a connection to that larger entity, like you're part of this big thing, which is college. And this gives these students also an opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than themselves.”

While K-12 students are typically attending tutoring sessions from their home, or from one of Wooster’s off-site childcare locations, college tutors have been logging on from a variety of places. Some are tutoring from their dorm rooms or the library. Others are tutoring from miles – and in some cases, several time zones – away.

“We have a significant number of students that are doing their tutoring from overseas,” Broda said. They are mostly first-year students who were not able to obtain a travel visa to come to the U.S., due to the pandemic, but still wanted to get involved from abroad.

“They are getting up and tutoring at 3 in the morning to help students here at 3 in the afternoon with their calculus homework,” Broda said. “It's been amazing.”

Touching moments have emerged from some of the tutoring sessions, Broda added, particularly with the international students. The sessions have created a feeling of connectivity rarely felt between individuals so far apart.

“What's been most unique and significant is the fact that for both parties, it's this idea that here we are on opposite sides of the world, but able to talk about the same thing and work on the same idea and solve these problems together...” Broda said. “The divide is gone. There is no divide. It's just, we're here to help, and location is irrelevant at that point.”

Some K-12 students have begun to develop a bond with specific tutors, having worked with them several times before. Broda said this was by design.

“That was actually our hope from the beginning, because we know that building a relationship is at the core of the learning process,” Broda said. “We wanted students to be able to see and count on someone consistent being able to help them throughout. And for our students, it gives them a history of what the student has done and what they need help in.”

Officials say Microsoft Teams has been suitable for both parties, with few technological challenges hindering the educational process. The school district had already provided students with electronic learning devices prior to the school year, so connectivity has not been an issue.

The focus moving forward will be to grow and improve the program.

For Wooster City Schools, this means finding unique ways to market it towards parents and families. The district has already advertised the program through its parent newsletter, and it has promoted it on Facebook and Twitter.

The next step will be to put fliers in local grocery stores, Arbogast said, with a QR code at the bottom that will lead parents to the website. The district also plans to put these fliers in the take-home meal packages it hands out to students during the week.

The College of Wooster, meanwhile, will continue to improve the program internally. Because each tutoring session is recorded, lead tutors are able to watch the film and offer feedback to their peers. This has allowed the quality of the tutoring to improve over time, and it has given education students meaningful leadership experience.

“They periodically meet to go over teaching techniques: how to talk to students, how to listen, how to fill a moment where a student might not know what to say or might not be talking, how to engage the students,” said Sarah Dunlap, the director of field, assessment and candidate engagement for Wooster’s education department.

“And so that has been really neat for our education students that are going into student teaching next spring, to kind of take a lead role and to really practice their skills and teach others some really effective techniques that they learned during their time here.”

The tutors are already building their own firewall-protected "training archive," Broda added, with hours of footage to evaluate and learn from.

“I think that we're gonna notice a pretty significant increase in skill development," he said.

Both K-12 and college officials say this program could continue after the pandemic ends. Given its cost-efficiency and impact, Broda believes the program could even be expanded locally.

“There's no reason why this can't be a longer standing opportunity for our students,” he said, “as well as the greater Wayne County community.”

Could this kind of partnership happen in Knox County?

Given the similarities between Wooster and Mount Vernon, it isn’t difficult to envision a similar effort happening here.

Both communities have institutions of higher learning, and both have similarly sized public school systems (Wooster City Schools has 3,600 students, while Mount Vernon City Schools has roughly 3,900).

While Kenyon College and Mount Vernon Nazarene University have both worked with local K-12 districts before, neither are currently participating in a program like Wooster’s. Kenyon representatives did hint, however, at the idea that such a partnership might be coming down the road, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Kenyon’s Office for Community Partnerships is in conversation with a local school regarding a virtual tutoring program, and in collaboration with them, the OCP is carefully considering factors that will ensure the success of such a program under a variety of instruction methods,” Kenyon Media Relations Director Mary Keister said in a statement.

“Colleges and universities are engaging in a range of different models for online tutoring with local schools, and we are interested in creating a program that best fits the needs and comfort level of students, parents and teachers in our district.”

While Keister couldn’t provide additional details at the time, she said more information would be available later this semester.

The key to building Wooster’s program, Arbogast said, was the shared interest from college and K-12 officials. The two entities had developed a sense of cohesiveness and trust over time, she added, and that played a role in their ability to partner so quickly this fall.

“I think in this area, the pandemic opened the door for an opportunity ...” Arbogast said. “I would just encourage local school districts and universities and colleges to reach out to each other and look at opportunities. Start small and my guess is, they would only see it grow.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.