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St. Louis tutors work to shore up pandemic learning slide

St. Louis tutors work to shore up pandemic learning slide

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ST. LOUIS — Second grader Khori Mitchell has yet to experience a normal school year. Kindergarten ended abruptly at spring break. First grade didn’t start in person until March. Going into this year, her mom wasn’t sure what to expect.

“There was still a lot of uncertainty,” said Courtney Mitchell of St. Louis. “All the kids are on different levels. Teachers are trying to play catch-up.”

So in July, Mitchell called the Tutor Doctor, a newly opened franchise in south St. Louis County. Khori has been meeting with a tutor every week since.

After a tumultuous 18 months of pandemic schooling, test scores are down and emotional needs are up. In Missouri, standardized assessments showed drops in all subject areas. School districts are making plans to use federal coronavirus-relief money to compensate for interrupted classroom time. Meanwhile, parents are clamoring for help.

Tutoring, which can cost up to $75 an hour, is worth the investment , parents say. The one-on-one attention and individualized goals produce academic gains while bolstering confidence and assuaging anxiety. After schools shuttered in the spring of last year, some families hired caregivers for “pod” learning or found free online services through programs such as St. Louis County Library’s Tutor.com partnership.

But when districts returned to full-time, in-person learning this fall, the academic gulfs were glaring.

“I had a lot of parents tell me they feel like the kids are a whole year behind,” said Hannah Church of South County. The former educator set up an online platform in September after noticing social media posts asking for tutors.

Her site, Teachers as Tutors, connects families with certified teachers, who work as independent contractors. With little advertising, she signed up five families in the first couple weeks.

Sarah Cantrell opened Tutor Doctor in June. She anticipated slow, deliberate growth.

“Then we got very, very busy,” she said. “In September, we erupted.”

As the first assignments and quizzes were sent home from school, parents could see that critical math and reading skills had slipped.

“Virtual learning has been extremely difficult for these families,” said Cantrell, who used to be a classroom teacher. “I tell the families, ‘You are not alone.’”

Meeting demand

Cantrell and Church are among the new business owners attempting to meet demand for tutors. Established agencies are booked out and looking to hire. The Clayton-based parent of Varsity Tutors, Nerdy, saw its tutoring sessions double by midyear, before it went public in September.

Steve Notestine of Glendale opened Tutoring STL, a one-man operation, three months before the pandemic hit. He had decided to leave the classroom, burned out from 12-hour days of lesson planning and coaching football and track.

“I was just looking for a bit of a change and didn’t fully want to give up teaching,” he said.

With the recent influx of students — Notestine specializes in middle school to college level — his days are sometimes as long as they used to be, but he’s in control of his schedule. And he has a lot fewer papers to grade.

In many ways, Notestine feels like he’s still coaching. Beyond covering curriculum, he shows teenagers how to strengthen self-reliance, test out strategies and cope with pressure.

“It really doesn’t matter what the subject matter is,” he said. “A lot of times, my job is to take that tension of school away from the family relationships.”

For Shanieka Jackson of St. Louis, tutoring buys her some peace of mind.

Last year was all virtual for her 8-year-old, Pamela. She kept up with her studies, but Jackson wanted to make sure she was being challenged. She scheduled her daughter for twice-weekly sessions with a tutor.

Pamela prospered.

“The tutoring really filled in the gaps,” Jackson said. Now that the third grader is back in person at the Biome School, she’s charging ahead, especially in her favorite subject, math.

She is still meeting with Marsha McCleod, or “Ms. Marsha,” as Pamela calls her.

“You don’t have to be behind to get tutoring,” said Jackson. “You can get tutoring to keep from getting behind.”

McCleod, who lives in the Central West End, started a tutoring business in 2004, after retiring from an elementary career. A couple years later, she rebranded as a nonprofit, called Inner City Youth Tutoring.

“I realized there was a group of children we weren’t going to reach,” she said. “Tutoring is not something you budget for.”

Most parents pay a sliding fee for her services. Some contribute with volunteer hours.

Despite the agency’s name, McCleod and her three employees have pupils all over the region, from Shiloh to St. Charles. Before the pandemic, they met with their charges wherever they could: hair salons, babysitters’ houses, after-school programs.

When everything closed in March 2020, McCleod worried she wouldn’t survive. She wrote a grant to buy computers for her students. She assembled keep-at-home learning kits, with magnetic letters and counting blocks, dry-erase boards and books. Zoom became routine. Session times increased from one hour to two.

“We started to see success in two weeks,” said McCleod.

Now she has more students than available spots. She could use extra hands.

Tutoring hasn’t dodged the labor shortage. Full-time teachers are drained. And tutoring requires finesse, focus and creativity. Hours are flexible, but nights and weekends are the norm.

Jessica Beeson of Willow Tree Tutoring in St. Charles wants to add at least two people to her team of four. She shoulders almost half of the agency’s appointments, sometimes working back to back for 12 hours.

A life raft

Beeson began small, in 2008, with students from her school.

“I originally started it for my ‘skaters’,” she said, those kids who sneak under the radar but are barely getting by.

In 2014, she devoted herself to Willow Tree full time. Three years later, she hired her first employee. Over the summer, they moved to a bigger office.

“Last year, we essentially exploded,” Beeson said. “We had a lot of calls for kids who wouldn’t normally struggle.”

Some parents phoned her in tears. A few told her their children were at risk of self-harm.

Beeson has always focused on the social and emotional side of child development. But in the past few months, she and her team have undergone trauma training. They chat with their students about how their day has been, what their favorite colors are, the kind of music they like.

Willow Tree has been a life raft for Sara Chinnock of O’Fallon, Missouri, since her 11-year-old, Clare, started there almost a year ago. The pandemic had poked holes in her basic math concepts — and also her self-esteem.

Both have been built back.

“It’s not average tutoring, where they’re just working on a skill,” said Chinnock.

Beeson tries to uncover what will motivate her students. She plays their favorite songs and offers them snacks. They turn lessons into games, performing charades with vocabulary words and constructing race tracks out of flashcards.

“We get to have fun,” Beeson said.

Katie Westerfield of St. Charles enrolled her daughter, Maya, at Willow Tree this fall. With masking and intermittent quarantines, last year was overwhelming for the fourth grader, who has ADHD and anxiety.

Now Maya “gets visibly excited” for her tutoring dates, Westerfield said. She loves the attention. For the first time, she’s close to grade level on her benchmark assessments at school.

But more importantly, her mom said, is that Maya’s view of herself has changed.

“The confidence she’s gained, it’s always been in her,” said Westerfield. “But they just brought it out.”

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