by Ben Adlin
Classrooms will be empty next month when Seattle public schools kick off an unprecedented school year, with nearly all learning set to happen remotely. For a local nonprofit that pairs hundreds of Seattle students with one-on-one reading tutors, that’s meant figuring how to bring in-person lessons to the virtual realm.
“It is us taking our evidence-based curriculum and digitizing it, and creating a safe and secure platform online,” said Cassy McKee, executive director of the Seattle chapter of Reading Partners, a national nonprofit that in years past has brought books and volunteer tutors to reading rooms at elementary schools that serve low-income families, including Rising Star Elementary in South Beacon Hill.
Things screeched to a halt in March, when the coronavirus pandemic closed schools, but since then the organization has steadily reopened remotely. It’s launched an online library of books and adopted a new translation app to better communicate with families, and this fall it will boot up an online version of its one-on-one tutoring sessions.
The group will give a public preview of the new tutoring program, Reading Partners Connects, during a webinar Thursday Aug. 20 at noon. Those interested in watching the webinar can either register in advance to join the Zoom meeting or watch a live broadcast on the organization’s Facebook page.
There’s no official start date for the program just yet, but McKee said organizers are working with local schools and hoping to launch in the first week in October.
“This spring we immediately started pivoting and began figuring out how we could best serve students and their families,” McKee said. “What we weren’t able to figure out in the spring was a way to safely and meaningfully connect [volunteers] with our students in a one-on-one setting. It is certainly an all-hands-on-deck effort to do that.”
Traditionally, in-person lessons have occured in on-campus reading rooms led by AmeriCorps site leaders at Title I elementary schools, which serve a disproportionately high number of low-income families. The schools qualify for certain funds and services aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. Another Title I reading program run by the University of Washington, for example, encourages self-directed learning by rewarding kids for keeping good reading habits.
Through the Reading Partners tutoring program, students would visit twice weekly, usually during their scheduled reading block, and meet with volunteer mentors. Each student would work with their mentor for the entire school year, providing consistency and an opportunity to build a relationship with that tutor.
“In a normal world, when you walk into the reading center, you’ll see between five and ten pairs working at desks,” McKee said. Lessons would begin by reading a book at the student’s ability level, then working through a guided curriculum with the tutor. The goal is not only to help improve reading comprehension and critical thinking, but also to build a lifelong love of reading.
Toward the end of each lesson is a tutor read-aloud, where the mentor would read from a book chosen by the student. “We want our students to choose something that’s of high interest to them and that’s a text level that’s probably above what they would choose to read on their own,” McKee said. Experts say reading to children is an essential part of their development, increasing reading comprehension, vocabulary, and understanding of the world around them.
Each on-campus lesson would conclude with the student choosing a book of their own to take home and keep, allowing them the opportunity to slowly amass a small library of their own over the course of the school year.
Though the elements of the new online program are the same, it will look decidedly different. With Reading Partners Connects, “students and their tutors will securely log into their session using an encrypted video conferencing platform,” the organization said this week in a statement. “Tutors will have access to lesson plans, teaching resources, and ebooks carefully designed and selected to follow a thoughtful, explicit, and systematic scope and sequence.”
The program is meant to come to the aid of an education system plagued by institutional inequities and thrown into disarray by the global pandemic. Reading Partners cites an April 2020 brief by NWEA, an education research nonprofit, that estimated that “students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year.”
In Washington State, Reading Partners said, “only 22% of students experiencing economic disadvantages are reading proficiently by the fourth grade.” Students who don’t read proficiently by that grade have significantly lower high school graduation rates.
Seattle Public Schools are set to begin remote classes on Friday, Sept. 4, and advocates are already warning of disparate obstacles for vulnerable families. Parents who work in essential businesses, disproportionately People of Color, are often unable to be home with children during the school day, and access to technology is far from equitable.
“Reliable internet was a huge challenge in the spring,” McKee said. “We’d be doing a read-along, and one of our students would make a brilliant comment, and our internet would cut out.”
Reading Partners Seattle is working with teachers, principals, volunteers, and its national organization to make the best of a bad situation. “Our schools and our school districts have both said we’re going to have a technology device for every student,” McKee said, “so we are anticipating that our students will have their own technology device, and we are going to be doing as much family support as we can.”
“These inequities were here already,” she added, “but they are being made so much more challenging in this virtual environment.”
The number of students the program can serve will also go down — at least initially, McKee said. Normally the organization pairs about 250 students in the Seattle area with tutors. With the transition online, that number is expected to be closer to 150, she said.
In an effort to address social and economic inequities, Reading Partners spends its limited capacity on students who need it most. Students must be enrolled at comparatively low-income schools, and the organization tries to identify students who would most benefit from one-on-one instruction, such as English-language learners and students who read below grade level.
“We’re really there to be a capacity builder for our schools,” McKee said. “Students are referred to the program by their teachers. We assess them and place them in the curriculum exactly where they need to be.”
Books in the library are also racially and culturally diverse, McKee said, in an effort to ensure the curriculum “is representative of our students’ identities.”
At launch, all of the lessons will be led by past volunteers, who have already completed a background check, the organization said. Reading Partners is also recruiting new volunteers, though that onboarding process will happen later this fall.
Volunteers will need to be able to commit at least an hour per week, preferably for the whole school year, McKee said. Participants will need access to a reliable internet connection and a computer with a webcam and microphone, but interested volunteers can still get in touch if they don’t have those things. Orientation for tutors will also be “much more intensive than in the past,” McKee said, with added tech training and other instruction.
“This is new for us too,” she explained. “We are going to be running our program basically within students’ homes. So that is hugely different for us.”
The organization is also expecting to partner more closely with families to make sure students can get online and into the system.
“We should have been doing more before COVID,” McKee said, “but this has been an opportunity to get better at that.”
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based reporter.
Featured image courtesy of Reading Partners.