The Polk County School District hopes to reduce COVID learning gaps through a $4.75 million contract with Varsity Tutors for online tutoring and lessons, which will have the potential to reach nearly 40,000 students districtwide.
Superintendent Frederick Heid told the School Board at its regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 13 that Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding, provided to the district during the pandemic, will be used to pay for the contract. The plan is expected to help Polk’s teachers and families address learning losses with the digital-based intervention tool.
“It does target almost 40,000 students, and that’s why the cost,” Heid said. “If utilization does not match the total number within the prescribed contract, we don’t pay that. It will be based off the learner usage.”
The breakdown is $10 per learner per month under the contract. And will be used in 42 schools districtwide.
Heid said the tutoring will be utilized by classroom teachers and at home by families.
“It is interesting because it’s available 24/7,” he said. “It’s available not only for our students but for our parents in multiple languages.”
“So, there is no disconnect then for families when children come home because – now that we’re one-to-one – students have devices they can take home and/or they can choose to log in from a device at their home and they can engage with their tutor,” Heid said.
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In the classroom setting, the program will allow teachers to “differentiate” lessons for students learning at different levels as well as provide an electronic “co-teacher” for small group breakout sessions, he said.
For example, the teacher could instruct her students at the front of the room to kick off the class, give the kids some directions and maybe examples of how they are expected to complete a math problem, before going into small groups.
Students who finish the daily lesson with time to spare can move on and work independently with the Varsity Tutors program. This also frees up the teacher to gather struggling students for more direct instruction and additional support.
“The benefit is this is an extension of the classroom teacher; almost a co-teacher that operates hand in hand with them,” Heid said.
He said several large urban school districts have seen a “great deal of success” with the program.
“At the end of the day, we will closely monitor utilization because it’s not our intention to waste taxpayer monies,” Heid said. He added the district did compare Varsity Tutors to other similar options to catch up Polk’s lagging students.
The program stood out because teachers can contact with their tutors and have them work on an individual student and not let students continue until they master the academic concepts, he said.
The program “will be a slow rollout for this year and more of a comprehensive rollout next year.” Heid said. The teachers will receive training this year, and videos targeting parents will be available for home use to maximize the benefit to families at home.
“We don’t want parents waiting on us all the time if there’s something you want your child to seek additional support for,” he said.
The one-year contract with Varsity Tutors for Schools was unanimously approved by the School Board. The program offers students help with homework, studying for tests and reviewing draft papers, according to the district’s website. The online tutoring services are available for all subjects, including special education, English as a second language, AP and IB courses.
St. Louis-based Varsity Tutors began 15 years ago and now serves 1 million students across 200 school districts, according to its proposal. It has a network of more than 40,000 vetted, US-based tutors, with subject-matter expertise in all K-12 subjects. Tutors are qualified to teach students with learning differences, such as ADD/ADHD, dyslexia and autism, as well as students receiving special education services and ESL support.