What if your school district could take advantage of a service that helps struggling students succeed while positioning future educators for success at the same time?

The New Jersey Tutoring Corps program, launched in the summer of 2021 by Tammy Murphy, the state’s first lady; the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund; and the Overdeck Family Foundation aims to do both. The program began as part of The College of New Jersey’s School of Education, with initial funding totaling $2.4 million.

At its founding, the program spanned eight weeks, serving students at 23 sites throughout the state, including Boys & Girls Clubs and Y Alliance sites.

Headshot of Katherine Bassett
Katherine Bassett

“It was phenomenal,” said Katherine Bassett, the organization’s CEO, who was a middle school librarian for 26 years, winning the New Jersey State Teacher of the Year in 2000. “It brought me closer to the classroom, which I had really missed.”

Bassett, who worked at Educational Testing Service, Pearson, and as president and CEO of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year after her 26-year career at Ocean City Intermediate School, part of the Ocean City School District, was recruited by the college to lead the project, which entailed hiring staff, ordering equipment and developing training materials. “It was a lot of fun, but it was a tremendous amount of work,” she said.

In the fall of 2022, the college and the Overdeck Family Foundation agreed that the program had grown to the point that it needed to be an independent nonprofit organization.  In November 2022, the program left the college and is now operating as a 501(c)(3) as well as holding 509(a)(2) status under the name New Jersey Tutoring Corps Inc. With three program cycles completed – summer 2021, school-year 2021-2022, and summer 2022, the organization is preparing for its school-year 2022-2023 cycle, which includes embedded school-day tutoring.

The organization focuses on helping students in grades K-8, although the bulk of scholars are in grades K-5, Bassett said. Math and reading are the focus.

“Our scholars have seen their math skills raised by 25 percentage points – not 25% but 25 percentage points,” Bassett said. “That is very significant – and statistically significant.”

headshot of Michael Ettore
Michael Ettore

Michael Ettore, who works as a coach and consultant supporting K-8 math teachers for a private company and formerly served as the superintendent for the Little Silver School District and the Monmouth Beach School District, serves the organization as an instructional coach in Monmouth County. Beyond assessment scores, NJTC is helping students in other ways as well, he said.

“I have always said this from way back when I was a math teacher: So many kids struggle with math not because they don’t have good number skills – they struggle because they don’t believe they can be successful,” he said. “Many times, their reading skills also hold them back from being successful math students.” After spending some time with the corps’ tutors, however, that confidence generally blossoms, he said. 

NJTC’s literacy program is just starting, so the organization is still gathering data on results, Bassett said. “We measure scholar success – we refer to students as scholars – by pre/post diagnostic assessments and qualitative data collected via surveys of scholars in grades 3 to 5, tutors, site coordinators, instructional coaches and partners,” Bassett said.

Tutors also focus on social and emotional learning, starting every tutoring session by asking scholars how they are feeling – and then capping off each session with the same question. “Our goal is at the end of the session to have them feeling satisfied and happy,” Bassett said. “To do that takes a lot of training in social and emotional learning.”

Headshot of Anjanae Haqq
Anjanae Haqq

Anjanae Haqq, a trustee with the Westampton Township Board of Education in Burlington County and a mother of four, is a certified K-8 educator who serves in various capacities, including as a tutor with the NJTC in the summer. Since she joined the program when it began in the summer of 2021, she’s been inspired by the social and emotional growth she’s seen in scholars on top of their academic progress.

When Haqq asks students “how are you feeling today and why,” she provides a graphic organizer with vocabulary naming various feelings and emotions. “Since most of the scholars were a bit reticent to share at the beginning of the program, I would model how I was feeling, revealing that sometimes things occur in life that we can’t control,” she said. “I practiced reframing situations to see the positive and growth opportunities. While working with the scholars, I constantly reminded them to use affirming words to themselves and each other and reminded them how our outlook in life (attitude) can sometimes change our situations (altitude). By the end of the program, scholars were willing to share their feelings and students began to lead the discussion by asking their peers and me how we were feeling.”

As to why she began working with New Jersey Tutoring Corps, Haqq observed, “Education and tutoring is about uplifting communities … it is a form of social justice.” She added, “I enjoy being a tutor knowing that I am using my agency to help create equity among students and to serve as a positive African American female role model who was raised in the inner city. I am living history that with a strong support system and a desire for change, scholars can break cycles of systemic inequities. Muhammad Ali stated, ‘Our service to others is the rent we pay for our room on earth.’ I am still ‘paying my rent’ and working with the rising fifth and sixth-grade students at the Boys & Girls Club in Trenton over the summer has provided many opportunities to do so.”

Ettore noted that he was intrigued by the good work he heard the organization was doing. “It’s been a really satisfying experience for a lot of reasons,” he said. “I had spent the bulk of my career working in affluent districts, and this has given me the opportunity to make a contribution with kids coming from a very different walk of life.” 

Results More than 95% of scholars tell program administrators that they are more confident in their ability to do math and read than at the start of the program; 88% say they would be more willing to help a struggling peer; and 85% say they would participate and be more engaged in class, Bassett said.

Moreover, student surveys have shown that the program has positively impacted their outlook on learning, according to Haqq. “Students shared they would feel more confident asking questions in class and helping other students learn the material they have mastered,” she said. “Additionally, the bright smiles on their faces illuminated just how much the scholars loved the games and activities during reading and math.”

One of Bassett’s favorite memories is when she walked into a classroom and saw two rising kindergarteners working with a tutor on math problems. When someone asked them if they like math, “one said very quietly, ‘I love math.’ And the other one said, “I love math, too,’” Bassett said. Then, the first one said she was going to be a math teacher like her tutor when she grew up – “and the other one said, ‘So am I.’”

“We are planting these seeds of young people thinking about a career in education very early,” Bassett said, adding that the corps also plays a valuable role for tutors, as well, validating their career choice to pursue a career in education, or in a limited number of cases, showing them that perhaps they are better suited for another field.

Even when it’s the latter, NJTC is serving an important function, Bassett said, noting that when the initiative started in the summer of 2021, many preservice educators had not been able to teach in classrooms and work with students face to face as a result of the pandemic. 

“This was their first opportunity to work with scholars one on one,” Bassett said. “For most, it was very validating for them that this was the right career choice. So far, through three cycles of programming, we had one instance where it was validating in the opposite way. Someone who thought they wanted to be a teacher discovered that it did not suit them – and to me, that is just as important. It is important because we want people in our classrooms who want to be there. Our scholars need people who want to be there. And for this person to discover it was not the right choice, that was incredibly important.”

The organization’s “ulterior motive” of helping train the next generation of educators has been particularly gratifying for Ettore. “In my last five years or so on the job as a superintendent, I saw such a decline in the number of young people that were going into teaching – it was alarming,” he said. “Ten years ago, I could post a position in late August for someone going on maternity leave and have 50 resumes on my desk inside of 24 hours.”

While it’s been great to observe growth in the students, helping future teachers has been just as rewarding, he said. “I wanted to help support this next wave of teachers and give them what they need to be confident and successful,” he said. “I think that is part of the appeal of having someone like me be part of this. I come with the right background and the right skillset and experience to help them accomplish that goal.”

As for the pandemic, Haqq observed that we’ve all been affected by it one way or another. “But hopefully, the pandemic can be a reminder of the limited time we have on earth and a reminder to use our time wisely and to learn from the past to help create a new, brighter future,” she said. “We can’t change the past, but we can begin today, where we are, with what we have, with the right people, doing the right things, to work collectively to raise students’ academic achievement, social and emotional intelligence and resilience.”

How It Works NJTC works with school districts to provide tutors during the school day or after school – although only at sites that do not bus students to the program after hours. “We tried it with bussing, but it did not work, as typically you have a very small window to work with (such as 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.,)” Bassett said. With students having to get settled in or perhaps have a snack – and with the potential for buses to run late – it left very little time to instruct students.

In the summer of 2021, the corps served 2,000 scholars, and over the 2021-2022 school year, it served about 500 scholars – and another 2,000 that summer. “To date, we have served over 4,500 scholars through our program,” Bassett said.

NJTC works with schools to design a program, “embedding” tutors into classrooms during the school day, Bassett said. With elementary school teachers typically teaching numerous subjects, this approach gives tutors more access to the students.

Generally, school districts choose to have tutors focus more on math than reading and literacy – particularly if funding is a concern. “Math takes precedence – and that is the choice of the districts, not our choice,” Bassett said.

While NJTC initially received seed funding from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, that fund no longer exists. It continues to be generously funded by the Overdeck Family Foundation and grants. There was also a line item in Gov. Phil Murphy’s fiscal year 2022 budget giving $1 million to the corps, thanks in large part to Sen. Vin Gopal, chair of the Senate Education Committee, who serves District 11. “He helped make certain that line item stayed in place,” Bassett said. “Those state dollars have been critical in allowing us to do what we need to do.” 

Bassett noted there is a cost to districts for the program as the organization can’t rely solely on philanthropic funding. The corps pays staff $30 to $40 per hour, she said, with preservice educators, college students and paraprofessionals earning $30 an hour as tutors and those with a teaching credential and site coordinators and instructional coaches earning $40 per hour.

Ettore hopes that more districts will team up with NJTC, noting that the obvious candidates would be underachieving districts or districts focused on boosting test scores. “That need seems to be part of the reason why the organization has targeted sites like ours here in Monmouth County at Boys and Girls Clubs in Asbury Park and Red Bank,” he said. “These are kids who don’t have a lot of the same advantages as other kids in terms of parental support and private tutoring and things of that nature. I think districts in general that have a fairly large population of struggling students would honestly benefit from having people give them that more focused attention.” He added that school district budgets “are stretched thin” and it may very well make sense for some districts to partner with NJTC.

Finding enough tutors is not an issue, although it can be a struggle finding enough of them in the right places – particularly in rural districts, Bassett said. “Can you get 500 tutors? Absolutely. But can you get 500 tutors where you need them? Maybe,” she said. 

The New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has been an incredible supporter of the corps, helping it find tutors in various parts of the state, Bassett said.

“Our school district partnerships are fee-for-service models,” she said. “We use state dollars, philanthropic dollars and ask the district to contribute.”

When the corps ended its relationship with The College of New Jersey, however, school districts had already codified their budgets for this school year. “We were off cycle,” she explained, with the end result being that this school year, school districts are being asked to contribute less, with the hope being that they will budget dollars to work with NJTC in future years.

While Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds will no longer be a factor for districts after 2023, title dollars can often still be used to fund tutoring, Bassett said. “So, we will be asking school districts to fund a larger portion of services, based on the number of scholars, classrooms, etc.,” she said.

The goal is to get tutors into as many New Jersey school districts as possible, Bassett said. It works with charter organizations as well.

NJTC will also continue to offer services during the summer, largely at Boys and Girls Clubs locations as well as New Jersey YMCA State Alliance sites. “Parents and families often use those programs for childcare in the summer, and tutoring is part of that offering,” Bassett said. “So, if your child went to any given site, you might see swimming, arts, crafts, coding and also tutoring.” Parents who receive information on these various programs can opt in and pay for whichever ones they want, including tutoring. 

The summer program runs for seven to eight weeks, and scholars are expected to attend the entire time. “We want a commitment that they are going to be there for the whole cycle,” Bassett said.

NJTC recently employed more than 200 tutors, with 60% being preservice educators, which are college students who are studying to become teachers. The rest are in-service educators, paraprofessionals and retired professionals. All of them must go through a New Jersey criminal background check and be at least 18 years old.

At any given site, there is a mix of in-service and preservice educators, as it’s best when they work alongside each other, Bassett said.

Staff members with the corps take a hands-on approach at the summer sites to teach learning, Bassett said. “At our Trenton site, for example, we have an outdoor garden – and the scholars help plant the garden – and then they help harvest. As part of our math program, our tutors can take a piece of produce and say, ‘How many cucumbers do I have?’ And then they can cut one in half and ask, ‘How many do I have now?’ You still have one, but now you have two halves. So, we can teach fractions and weights and measures using produce.”

As to the struggles that students face in the aftermath of the pandemic, Bassett knows they are real, but she is not a fan of the term “learning loss,” which she so often hears.

“To me, that term says scholars did not learn,” she said. “That is not true. Scholars learned a lot about themselves during the pandemic. They learned a lot about collaboration and teamwork. They learned a lot about resilience. They maybe have some academic deficiencies, but they certainly learned. We strive to build their confidence and instill in them a genuine love of learning. We work to close gaps at both ends – academically and gaps in their confidence and in their ability to learn.”

Most importantly, the corps aims to promote a love of learning among students and a love of teaching among tutors. “The love of learning suffered during the pandemic – not just for scholars but for educators as well,” Bassett said.

By encouraging established educators to serve as tutors with the corps, Bassett is hoping to reverse that trend. “We are losing our mid-career educators,” she said. “Our early-career educators. They are going into other lines of work. We have to stop them and keep them. Offering them leadership opportunities as coaches and site coordinators or senior tutors can help keep their enthusiasm and energy level high.”

Haqq, who calls herself “a lifelong learner and teacher,” said she’s thankful for getting paid to do what she enjoys – and she hopes other educators will consider helping the organization advance its mission. 

“If you enjoy being in the presence of scholars and know that learning is a two-way street and you’re willing to learn from scholars as much as you’re willing to teach them, New Jersey Tutoring Corps is a good fit,” she said. “If you’re a change agent who’s interested in leveling the playing field so that all students can succeed, this is the right opportunity for you! If you’re looking for opportunities to learn and grow, know that New Jersey tutoring Corps invests in their staff and scholars and the organization fosters a results-driven, collaborative work environment and provides many opportunities for growth!” She added, “NJTC is about promoting equity and belonging, bringing out the best in individuals and growing leaders.”

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.