L.A. Unified experiments with new tutoring program during pandemic

Photo: Rebecca Jacobo Lopez

Joel Antonio Valiente, a 6th grader at South L.A.’s Manchester Avenue Elementary School, is part of Step Up Tutoring.

An after-school tutoring program kicked off amid the global health crisis is showing early promise in pockets of Los Angeles Unified, where a drop in grades among students has upended the nation’s second-largest school district’s approach to grading and instruction.

Step Up Tutoring, a new nonprofit that connects volunteer tutors with teachers whose students need additional academic support, is in its pilot phase. The district is targeting 4th-6th graders who attend schools in the east, northwest, and south local districts in an effort to reach students in both elementary and middle schools.

“It’s not that they’re not coming to virtual school,” said Gerardo Loera, an administrator of one of the regions where Step Up has been rolled out. “They’re there. They just need some extra support.”

The majority of LA Unified students have not returned to in-person learning since campuses were shuttered in March, which has raised concerns among educators about learning loss. A rise in failing grades during the fall semester among the district’s students led the district to extend their no-fail policy to avoid penalizing students. The district first introduced a version of that policy, which guaranteed that no student would receive a failing grade, last spring. A survey of 300 parents of special education students showed that nearly 75% of parents said their children are regressing or exhibiting a loss of skills.

Once LA Unified families were equipped with the technology and internet connection needed for distance learning, Step Up launched its pilot program at the start of the school year in August with an investment of nearly $1 million from Los Angeles-based philanthropist Jamie Halper. Among other positions, Halper is a member of Stanford University’s Board of Trustees and has a background in private equity.

With 402 students currently participating in the pilot, the program’s enrollment process has proven to be both a benefit and a challenge.

Step Up requires teachers to first opt in to join the program before their students can be invited to apply for tutoring which is carried out by qualified volunteers who must apply and be accepted into the program. Students with teachers who have not opted in cannot apply. 

“At the beginning, there was confusion about who should be recommended for a program,” Rodriguez said. Step Up now holds orientation sessions that include informing teachers that all students in their classrooms are welcome to join the program. 

Opening the program only to students whose teachers have opted into the program is intentional, says executive director Nati Rodriguez.

We sort of landed on — if we can get the teacher involved, that’s how we can scale, first of all. We might move slower, but the impact will be greater because this triangle of communication between family, teacher and tutor is extremely powerful for kids that are not having the typical interaction that they would if they were in person,” said Rodriguez, who joined Step Up in May. “It’s not easy by any means, especially because teachers are really, really busy. But we’re trying to figure out how to make this work.

For now, the pilot only includes schools in the San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Woodland Hills and Tarzana, plus schools in South Los Angeles and the southeast cities of Huntington Park and Walnut Park.

From the 62 L.A. Unified schools within those neighborhoods, teachers from nine schools have opted into the program. At this time, the program is limited to 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students in an effort to make the academic content simpler and more appealing for the volunteer tutors.

The tutor application initially included a video submission, a requirement that has since been replaced with a live video interview to expedite the application process and encourage more tutors to apply, Rodriguez said. But a live interview requires additional staff time, a challenge that Step Up has addressed by training highly-involved volunteers to interview the applicants. 

With a faster application process and social media outreach, Step Up received over 1,000 tutor applications by the end of the fall semester. Tutors must have a bachelor’s degree, whether completed or in progress, be at least 18 years old, agree to a fingerprinting background check, and have stable internet access. They can live anywhere in the United States.

Stan Gambrill, a semi-retired physician who lives in the Northern California city of Davis, signed up for Step Up Tutoring after his in-person tutoring with a different program were cut short last spring.

“I said, ‘Look, everybody’s kind of in suspended animation here,’” he said, referring to the abrupt transition to distance learning during the spring semester. “Is there some online effort that I could become part of?”

Gambrill completed a training workbook and attended an hour-long training. He was then paired with a 5th grader who has fallen behind in math.

Once a tutor and student have been paired, they work together to establish twice-weekly sessions of at least 45 minutes. Some have more sessions per week, and others have longer sessions twice a week.

Joel Antonio Valiente, a 6th grader at South L.A.’s Manchester Avenue Elementary School, was paired with a tutor after his mother, Rebecca Jacobo Lopez, sought tutoring help for her children. Valiente, 11, was the only one who qualified for Step Up because the program has yet to open to his siblings, who are in other grade levels.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Valiente joins an hour-long session with his tutor, who has helped him be more consistent with completing his schoolwork.

Photo: Rebecca Jacobo Lopez

Joel Antonio Valiente, a 6th grader at South L.A.’s Manchester Avenue Elementary School, is part of Step Up Tutoring.

Jacobo’s children have received various academic awards in past years, but that hasn’t been the case last year.

“You get used to having them bring you awards,” she said, acknowledging that it’s hard knowing how to encourage her children because this school year has been stressful.

Toward the beginning of the fall semester, Valiente was regularly on a list of students who were “in the red” and not regularly completing their assignments, participating, or engaging in class, said Jacobo Lopez.

That’s when she sought help from the school. Valiente started his tutoring sessions in November, mostly getting help with his reading and writing skills. 

Since he joined the program, his mother has noticed Valiente is now often part of “the yellow and green lists,” which includes students who participate in class and turn in their assignments. In a way, she said, he’s become more confident.

Step Up is recruiting any student whose teacher opts into the program, as opposed to only students with failing grades or who are chronically absent.

“We do primarily focus on homework help. But we’ve told teachers, even a student who just needs a mentor, needs that confidence boost, that they’re a good fit. If they want enrichment, they’re a good fit. If they’re behind, they’re a good fit,” Rodriguez said. It was intentional for us to open it to everyone.”

Liliana Bautista, a 6th grader at 75th Avenue Elementary School, joined Step Up about two months ago.

“My daughter was very behind. She wasn’t advancing in math, and this has helped her,” said her mother, Arminda Pineda. “She used to cry and say she couldn’t understand, but now she says she’s learning.”

Pineda asked the school for tutoring assistance early into distance learning, but she said she was told no tutoring was available at the time. Once the fall semester began, she received a call about Step Up and signed up.

“I’m grateful that they’ve been helping her,” said Pineda, who explained that her daughter now receives one-on-one support for about an hour every Monday and Tuesday.

The 402 students in the Step Up pilot program represent a sliver of all the students in the neighborhoods where the program is currently active, but Rodriguez expects they will onboard 1,000 more students by the end of the school year. 

Step Up has a five-year contract with L.A. Unified, during which the organization expects to scale the program to include the entire district. Eventually they plan to expand to partner with other school districts.

I think we all can agree there’s a huge need,” Rodriguez said. “And I do think that tutoring and mentoring and this one-on-one, even if it’s online, is critical to help with some of the learning loss and the lack of socializing. It’s very special to have the students have the consistent attention from an adult that’s there to support them.”

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