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Fitting Tutoring Into the School Day Is Hard. How 3 Principals Made It Work

For over a year, Elizabeth Oviatt has had to be on top of the master schedule for her school. As the academic director of Summit Primary School in Arlington, Texas, Oviatt said she’s been doing “scheduling gymnastics” to make one critical program work smoothly in her school—one-on-one intensive tutoring in reading.

The need was acute when 2nd graders returned to school after two years of disrupted or hybrid instruction, said Oviatt, and were reading well below their grade level.

During the pilot, the district saw students who attended have more growth in literacy than students who didn’t. This year, it’s expanding to kindergarten and 3rd grade students too.

“That’s how happy we were with the intervention,” said Oviatt.

There are clear learning benefits to high-dosage tutoring, especially when conducted during the school day. The Biden administration recently announced plans to monitor the implementation of states’ high-dosage tutoring plans publicize those that are doing it well.

But getting tutoring done within the school day means getting the schedules right so that students don’t miss core instruction.

Finding a sweet spot

Oviatt’s primary school is subject to a Texas law that requires schools to provide “accelerated instruction” to low-performing students—high-dosage tutoring is one of the strategies she’s using. Shanna Rae, the principal of University Park Creative Arts School in Charlotte, N.C., is in a similar boat.

High-dosage tutoring’s impact hinges on its successful implementation, with principals at the heart of the effort. Principals must choose to divert resources to the tutoring—sometimes prioritizing it over other efforts. “We didn’t want kids moving up to the next grade without foundational literacy skills,” said Oviatt.

Tutoring in Oviatt’s school dovetailed with small-group instruction within the class period. The challenge was that its provider is an online program that connects tutors to students one-on-one in 15-minute instructional blocks. So Oviatt had to find a physical space where students could log in through their Chromebooks. She settled on the library. Now, it’s used between 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. every morning for four to five rounds of tutoring sessions. Teaching aides are already present to help the kids log in at their assigned seats.

“We only have 20 minutes so we have to be very efficient about how the space is set up,” said Oviatt.

Tanna Nicely, the principal of South Knoxville Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., started her -intensive tutoring initiative last year for about 20 percent of the schools’ students. To create tutoring blocks, Nicely stitched together bits of time in the school day that usually just slip through the cracks.

“We had to audit the time that slipped away after attendance was taken, or right before lunch, or 10-minute bathroom breaks. For instance, our classes ended at 2:25 p.m., but the busses are called at 2:45 p.m.,” said Nicely.

The school also shaved off five minutes from recess, but Nicely wasn’t in favor of cancelling recess altogether.

In-person tutoring happens throughout the day, but usually starts after 9:15 in the morning to give tutors 45 minutes to plan their lessons at the start of the day. “We had some challenges adjusting to this new schedule last spring, but now it’s become part of our school day,” said Nicely.

The idea, she added, was for all students to have “group time” in the slots that coincided with tutoring, so that no student feels like they’re being pulled out for special help. During the same class period, different groups of students could get intensive tutoring and other interventions.

“We have groups all over the school. Some in the hallways, some in the gymnasium. So there’s no distinction,” Nicely said.

Tutoring blocks must also be strategically placed in the school day, said Aleta Posey, the principal of Washington Elementary in Little Rock, Ark.

Posey’s school started high-dosage tutoring for 180 students across grades 1-3 and realized quickly that these couldn’t be too early or late in the day.

“We had to push back our first tutoring block by 30 minutes in the morning because kids were missing them,” said Posey.

The sweet spot is midday—15 minutes before and after lunch. Most of the tutoring slots, across grades, happen then. Posey specifically asked the school’s tutoring partner for these time slots because she wanted them to coincide with small-group instruction time already earmarked in her schedule.

Within the same class, said Posey, some students may be working with the teacher, while others will be receiving online tutoring in reading. Keeping the students in class when they log into their tutoring sessions has its advantages. “Teachers can walk around, observe the strategies that tutors are using. If the tutor is using different strategies, may be our teachers can even learn from them. And they can help kids with any log-in issues,” said Posey.

Schedules can change, but attendance shouldn’t fall

Rae, the principal from North Carolina, was initially worried about getting each of her 27 kindergarten students 15 minutes of tutoring every day. Her school has implemented an in-person tutoring program for kindergarten to improve reading. Initially, the school had three teachers’ aides acting as tutors for about nine students each. Even with a relatively small kindergarten class, Rae started to notice slips in the pilot program.

On certain days, too many teachers were absent and the aides-turned-tutors had to step in. When than happened, she noticed that attendance in the tutoring blocks gradually started to dip.

“I had to revise the schedule, and make sure that tutors who were missing their blocks made up for it at an alternative time. They would have to do an extra 15 minutes with the student the next day,” said Rae.

Rae also prepped parents in advance, explaining that kids might miss 15 minutes of math or music class in favor of tutoring, but that this was key to read at grade level by the end of kindergarten. Parents didn’t really push back, Rae said, but she has to keep a close eye on whether kids are showing up for their tutoring blocks.

“We have to coordinate with the tutor and the program coordinator … to know which students don’t make it and ask their parents why,” said Rae. Administrators remind parents to drop their kids off specifically for that 15 minutes because they don’t want their child to miss the personalized, one-on-one input. She has noticed that students who might otherwise have been absent come to the 15-minute session—and then stay for the rest of the school day.

Tutoring can’t isolate kids or tutors

A schedule for high-dosage tutoring runs much better when students don’t feel they’re being singled out for special instruction, said Nicely. If they are excited about this block of time, they are likely to show up more, said Nicely—and that has a lot to do with how well they connect to the tutors.

“We have to layer in our tutors [into the school’s support system]. In the first week of the program, tutors didn’t start teaching immediately. We had them go to professional development meetings with the core instruction teachers or teaching assistants. The tutors are also required to go to long-term planning sessions with teachers when they’re deciding goals for math or English/language arts,” said Nicely.

The district gave Nicely the funds to hire three tutors, but the principal doubled that number by using Title I funding. A year in, Nicely has observed that students have gotten comfortable with their tutors and enjoy their sessions more.

Rae recruited tutors from within the school, so the school didn’t have to adjust to people outside the school’s staff.

“I was a new principal and on the lookout for teacher aides who were on the path to becoming full-time teachers. This was an opportunity for them to gain some experience,” said Rae.

When the tutoring is offered online, as in Posey’s school, tutors have to make an extra effort to connect with students.

“Students look at it as having their own person, dedicated to them, checking up on them,” said Posey. “Kids love that.”

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