KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Reading, writing and refreshing web browsers are daily challenges for kids navigating virtual learning during the pandemic, but a Western Michigan University program provides struggling students a place to find support. The University's Office of Precollege Programming offers free drop-in virtual tutoring sessions for middle and high school students in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS).
Funded by the King-Chávez-Parks Initiative's College Day Program, Western students are employed to mentor and help with homework free of charge. Roughly 50 KPS students signed up for sessions during fall semester. That number has already more than doubled since winter break.
"We started with six tutors and two site coordinators. Now we have 12 tutors and are looking to hire three more," says Tania Echavarria, College Day Program director. "We're just trying to help the students any way we can."
While the U.S. Department of Education is just beginning to assess the impact of virtual schooling on K-12 students, recent nationwide data show students are failing classes at dramatically higher rates.
"It is already challenging for a teacher to be able to address all the needs of students in the classroom when they're working face to face. Imagine how challenging it is now virtually," says Lourdes Pimentel Soto, who is pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at Western.
She says virtual classrooms make it difficult for teachers to make personal connections.
"The students need that sense of belonging, that feeling that you care. When they come to tutoring, it's one-on-one or in a very small group where I can focus on them and their needs in a specific way or listen to concerns. I think it adds value and impacts the way a student feels."
Many Western students involved in tutoring are studying education. Others are part of the University's Mentoring for Success Program—a peer support service that provides academic assistance to undergraduate students.
"Those mentors are now coming in and tutoring our precollege students as well," Echevarria says. "They're really strong in their career fields, anything from nursing to engineering and all kinds of leadership careers. We also have the Upward Bound Program, where our mission is to bring up precollege students and give them the skills and tools to be successful in their college career."
Pimentel Soto and Ryan Hunter, a senior from New Baltimore, Michigan, have both been tutoring KPS students for several years. While the jump to virtual sessions has been a change, they've taken the challenge head-on.
"A lot of it has been trying to build (the tutoring program) in a changing world where we don't know what the next week will look like," says Hunter, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in secondary education and integrated science. "Having these problem-solving skills and trying to manage four virtual meetings at once will definitely help me in the future."
"We're learning as educators that we have to develop our ability to adapt quickly," adds Pimentel Soto, an international student from the Dominican Republic who plans to take what she's learning at Western back to her home country after graduation. "That flexibility and always keeping in mind how students are being impacted is important so we can serve them better."
While the main function of tutoring is academic assistance, sessions often stretch beyond homework help.
"It's as much about the social aspect as it is about getting better grades and finishing classwork," Hunter says. "The tutoring session is a great time to get one-on-one interaction with someone other than their parents or guardians or their family. And I've noticed that a lot of the students come back. The tutors are really starting to build relationships with each student."
Pimentel Soto, whose doctoral research focuses on social and emotional learning, knows the importance of fostering those connections.
"We need to help students develop the social and emotional learning skills to be able to handle and manage all these things that we are experiencing right now," she says.
The Western students say they can also empathize with the younger students, as many of their own classes have changed drastically during the pandemic. It's given them a unique perspective as they develop both as learners and educators.
"To be able to build relationships and know that you are making a difference in these students' lives is fulfilling," says Hunter, adding that the students are helping him as much as he's helping them. "We're learning and working collaboratively, and it's just a great experience. I think we are all growing."
Parents or students interested in learning more about the tutoring program can call Echavarria at (269) 387-3339 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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