Online tutors are helping NYC students catch up. But expanding these programs remains costly.

Taylor, a student at Read 718, at a tutoring session with Pam before the pandemic shut the organization’s Downtown Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant locations.
Taylor, a student at Read 718, at a tutoring session with Pam before the pandemic shut the organization’s Downtown Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant locations. (Courtesy of Read 718)

Months after Read 718 opened its second Brooklyn storefront location, the one-on-one literacy tutoring program was forced to shut its doors because of the pandemic.

But that hasn’t stopped the organization’s expansion. In fact, Read 718 — which offers intensive, free or very low-cost tutoring to struggling readers from low-income families — had an easier time recruiting remote volunteers and held more sessions since it no longer had physical space constraints. The organization went from serving 55 third through eighth graders in person to 75 online and plans to continue seeing students online on top of in-person sessions next school year. 

“It feels more important than ever doing this work because remote [school] instruction is just not the same,” said Emily Kirven, executive director of Read 718. Many students they work with have high-risk relatives at home and are learning remotely full-time. 

The need for tutoring this year is immense, as data from across the nation indicates many students started the school year behind, particularly in math, and one study found that students of color lagged more than their white counterparts.  

Large-scale tutoring programs could make a big difference, some education experts say, citing evidence that such small group interventions often can help children improve reading and math skills. England and parts of Australia have launched government-funded tutoring programs. 

So far, New York City’s education department is not pursuing a systemwide tutoring program, officials said, but groups across the five boroughs like Read 718 are mobilizing volunteers to fill gaps and work with low-income families who can’t afford pricey individualized help.

Still, scaling up isn’t simple. While attracting volunteers has been easier, tutoring organizations face other logistical barriers, like training volunteers, doing background checks, and performing other quality control measures.

“Now we have more college students, writers, people who want to be teachers or are thinking about switching careers, retirees who worked in education or not,” Kirven said, but the organization still has staff-related bottlenecks when it comes to supporting volunteers. “It’s time consuming.”

While New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said “tutoring is absolutely being considered as one of the strategies that we will use to help students,” he also said “there’s a groundwork that has to happen for a tutoring program,” in terms of working with community-based organization, universities, and others. 

Across the city, groups aren’t waiting for the city to create something formal. And the movement benefits from high-profile support, including a push from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. More than 13,000 people from around the globe responded to the New York congresswoman’s recent call for volunteers for a homework helper program in her district, which covers parts of Queens and the Bronx, said Jonathan Soto, a political organizer for the Ocasio-Cortez’s political  campaign and a public school parent. The initiative aims to train — and provide background checks for — 1,000 volunteers by June to help with next school year, which will take a “massive amount of work,” the project’s website noted. 

Ocasio-Cortez piloted the program over the past six weeks, with volunteers doing more than 200 tutoring sessions for families at a school in the Bronx neighborhood of Throggs Neck. Starting this week, the program is expanding to a school in Corona, Queens.

Tutoring sessions run during the week from 6-8 p.m., starting with a group welcome message, with volunteers and families then going into breakout rooms for hour-long sessions. Students, who are referred to the program through their schools’ parent/teacher associations, are required to be joined throughout the four-week program by their parents, who also often need tech support or other help understanding their children’s work. 

All tutors must take training sessions from professional educators. About two thirds of the volunteers have teaching or tutoring experience, according to Soto. The congresswoman’s office is looking for volunteers, who speak Spanish, Bangla, Urdu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, French, and Kru, to help her diverse constituencies.

“We do this more as a form of popular education. It’s really parent-directed,” Soto said. “The language access part is incredibly important.”

During the pandemic, Stuyvesant High School seniors Jonah Keller and Derick Fang, who have been running a free tutoring program for elementary school students, dramatically changed how their four-year-old organization, the Stuyvesant Study Society, works. 

In the past, the organization had about seven tutors a year. Each met with four or five elementary school children at a time, essentially checking their homework. 

Derick Fang and Jonah Keller, co-presidents of the Stuyvesant Study Society, which matches student tutors from their school and a few other top-notch high schools with elementary school students. (Courtesy of Stuyvesant Study Society)

This year, the number of student tutors from the high-performing high school has increased tenfold, with about 70 teens now offering one-on-one online tutoring in a variety of languages — including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Bangla — at two schools. Keller and Fang looked to partner with schools where at least 80% of students come from low-income families. Over the summer they met twice a week for an hour with English learners at a Lower East Side elementary school. The group expanded this fall to a school in Corona, prioritizing areas that were especially hit hard by COVID-19. Initially, Keller and Fang manually matched student tutors with families, but as they’ve grown, they created a computer program to make matches primarily based on language and time preferences. 

“When we were doing the afterschool program, we were just like a calculator — checking the answer to problems. It wasn’t a really one-on one connection,” Keller said. “Now more than ever, our tutors are like mentors. Our tutors aren’t just helping with education for the student. They’re more like a friend to talk to.” 

Brooklyn mom Anna Garcia said Read 718’s tutoring program has made a big difference for her fourth grade son and third grade daughter. They are fully remote, having seen the effects of COVID-19 firsthand, after Garcia’s husband survived being on a ventilator for more than a month in March.

“There are days they are just over this whole remote thing,” she said. “They tune out.”

Her son, who has a learning disability, has been making steady progress in reading.

Transitioning to remote learning has been relatively seamless for Read 718, Kirven said, but nine months into the pandemic, some youngsters are feeling “Zoom fatigue,” she said. “They need more time outside of their homes and exercise, in general.”

Her organization works with children who were already struggling. Many have learning disabilities that make reading harder, she said, though they often go undiagnosed. 

“Those are the kids I’m worried about. They need consistency. Two times a week for an hour is not the same as every school day,” Kirven said.

And although her program has been able to expand online, Read 718 is still limited by what their staff is capable of overseeing. 

“We do an intake where we assess each child. We create plans based on that. Then we send those to tutors and follow up with tutors each week,” she explained. That makes programs like this one costly to scale. 

Other free homework help programs are offered by the New York Public Library, from 2-11 p.m. daily, and Dial-A-Teacher, run by the teachers union, from 4-7 p.m. on Monday through Thursday.

Christina Veiga contributed.

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