Officials: High-impact tutoring helping to close learning gaps

Virtual high-impact tutoring has been helping to close the learning gaps in Ector County ISD throughout the year.

House Bill 4545 established new requirements for accelerated instruction for students who did not pass the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam.

Without enough adults to provide tutoring, ECISD trustees and administrators decided to use its allocation of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER funds, to hire tutoring firms and pay them based on the results they achieved.

Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Lilia Nanez said this lifted the burden off teachers who were already stressed out.

“… This was just a blessing for us and a great way for us to use the ESSER funds,” she added.

A total of 6,099 students in kindergarten through high school have been using it. Students in kindergarten through second grade were chosen based on MAP scores and third through End-of-Course students were tabbed based on STAAR data.

Generally, end-of-course means 11th grade when ECISD administers U.S. history, but seniors take end-of-course exams, too, if they were not successful on previous tries, Nanez said.

Teachers and principals then decided who would do better face to face and who could learn virtually.

The district selected Air Tutors and FEV, which are being paid for with ESSER funds.

Amplify is the third company, but ECISD is not using outcomes-based contracting with them because Nanez said they were required to use them to leverage the TCLAS funding source. TCLAS stands for the Texas COVID Accelerated Learning Support.

All three firms were vetted by the state, Nanez said.

She said she interviewed nine firms from the state-vetted list and six said they would be willing to work on an outcomes-based contract.

“That’s when we decided to put these six companies in front of the principals. So then the principals could choose the companies that would best meet their needs,” Nanez said. “It gave the principals autonomy.”

Principals were given contact information for the willing firms. They had 15 minutes to present their platform and highlight their services.

Executive Director of Instruction and Professional Learning Lisa Wills said they were using HeyTutor, but they couldn’t find tutors and they had a hard time getting students connected in their system.

“So we very quickly stopped that contract and moved those kids into Air Tutors or FEV,” Wills said.

Nanez said the majority of schools selected Air Tutors and FEV. There were three campuses that chose HeyTutor, but after the district dropped the contract they were able to choose Air Tutors or FEV.

If students met certain milestones based on MAP testing (Measurement of Academic Progress), companies were paid more and if they regressed, the firms were paid less.

Nanez said principals were selective in choosing students for the high-impact tutoring.

“We also had facilitators and teachers to make sure that the kids were logging at the correct time and were actually being responsive,” she said.

FEV is a chat type of tutoring where students can type in questions and responses. They also have the option of using a microphone so they can talk without using a camera.

Air Tutors used a camera so the students got to see their tutor’s face. “It was all verbal and then they used a whiteboard to demonstrate and model for kids through the computer,” Nanez said.

Wills said elementary students performed better with Air Tutors because they could see the tutor’s face.

“… When they would get off task, or they weren’t paying attention the tutor could say hey, Steve, I need you to pay attention. Whereas on the chat, the tutor might check that but it just wasn’t as effective with our elementary students as it has been with our secondary. Secondary has been fine” with FEV, Wills said.

Nanez said the district is considering expanding Air Tutors next year to sixth and seventh grade.

“But the data is going to tell us how effective each company was and the payout is really going to tell us,” Nanez said.

She added that the law did not require tutoring for kindergarten through second grade, but MAP data showed gaps in those grade levels so principals were able to recommend students for tutoring.

Wills noted that this is the first normal year for second graders.

“So we know there were huge gaps in those,” Wills said.

ESSER funding lasts three years and the district received $53 million.

“Next year, we have allocated $3 million for high-impact tutoring,” Nanez said.

When the three years is up, Nanez said it’s hoped that the wide academic gaps will have closed.

“It can be taken back over by teachers,” Wills said. “Right now, it’s just so overwhelming with the number of students because of COVID. … It took that responsibility off the teachers’ plate of having to plan for intervention on top of everything else that they were having to do,” Wills said.

Nanez noted that teachers did small-group instruction.

Some campuses also chose to have their teachers do the tutoring, Wills said.

“… Parents had to sign off on the accelerated plan. Some of the kids that really needed a teacher to do and provide that direct instruction, the teacher did it. For some of the students that were a little more independent, this virtual tutoring was an option,” Nanez said.

Wills said Nanez was very precise in what she told principals to be careful of because not everyone does well virtually.

“They had to really look at students who would be successful with a virtual situation and those that aren’t. Those are the ones that got a face-to-face teacher. It was something they had to really look at and determine which students would best fit a virtual environment,” Wills said.

ECISD also hired a tutoring coordinator, Carina Escajeda, with ESSER funds who can visit campuses if they’re having login or tutor issues, for example, Wills said.

Nanez said a lot of the monitoring can be provided virtually, but when there are implementation issues, Escajeda will go to campuses.

“She has been a blessing. She’s the boots on the ground for us,” Nanez said.

Additionally, she said, the outcomes-based companies have been very responsive.

“If we had an issue, they responded within minutes,” she added.

Wills said FEV and especially Air Tutors were good about keeping up with attendance.

“If they had students that didn’t attend a tutoring session, they were making those calls to the parents and really making those contacts with the parents. FEV … left that more up to the campus to do that. And so it put another load on the campus, whereas Air Tutor took that onto themselves and we had better attendance with Air Tutor than we did with FEV,” Wills said.

Another criteria for the tutoring companies was to provide weekly data such as attendance rates, percentage passing and how students were rating their tutor.

“We’re reducing the dollar amount over the next three years throughout the ESSER timeline with the expectation that we’re closing the gaps for kids and we won’t need this much tutoring. So hopefully, we’ll be able to maintain tutoring with other federal dollars like Title I money, or State Compensatory Education funding. … That’s … additional funding for at-risk students,” Nanez said.