Not everyone likes the term “learning loss,” but virtually everyone agrees that many K-12 students are struggling in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One way to help them get back on track is tutoring, which the federal government, nonprofits and others are getting behind in a big way. 

On July 5, 2022, President Joe Biden called on schools to tap $122 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to provide high-quality tutoring, summer learning and enrichment and afterschool programs to provide pathways to help students make up for lost learning time and to succeed in school and life, including by supporting their mental health. The administration has also joined with leading organizations to launch the National Partnership for Student Success to provide students with an additional 250,000 tutors and mentors over the next three years.

New Jersey has taken up Biden’s call, with Gov. Phil Murphy announcing in December 2022 the launch of the New Jersey Partnership for Student Success, which aims to harness the energy of volunteers and community organizations to help students, educators, and schools as they work to address learning loss and other challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The initiative seeks to engage up to 5,000 individuals in a bid to recruit, screen, train and support tutors, mentors, student success coaches, wraparound service coordinators and postsecondary transition coaches who will work in coordination with educators, parents and other stakeholders to accelerate student learning, empower educators and strengthen community partnerships.

School districts throughout New Jersey, many of which had tutoring programs in place prior to the pandemic, are responding to the call to provide new or more robust tutoring programs for students. While American Rescue Plan funding is running or has run out, tutoring promises to remain a more robust feature at public schools for years to come.

In this article, two school districts – Barnegat in Ocean County and Bloomfield in Essex County – share how they’re leveraging tutoring programs to help students succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Going to Bootcamp In March 2021, Barnegat Township High School introduced Bengal Bootcamp to support the educational needs of all students in grades 9 to 12.

“We are incredibly proud of our in-house extended learning opportunity program here at Barnegat High School,” said Tracee DuBeck, an assistant principal at Barnegat High School. “While administrators, teachers, counselors and coaches constantly recommend students, we have also created a system to identify at-risk students who will benefit from this program based on academic, conduct and attendance data.”

The bootcamp began the school year after the district was completely shut down to in-person learning as a result of COVID-19. With modified schedules in place, students were not always in the building.

“Obviously, there were some gaps from COVID, with students needing extra support in English, math and other subjects,” said Patrick Magee, principal of Barnegat High School. “Did we see learning loss? Yes. But there was also an impact on other areas, and one of the areas most impacted was socialization and established norms of behavior. How do you resolve that peer-to-peer conflict? That is why there are social and emotional components to the tutoring program we run, because we need to rehabilitate those skills in addition to academic skills.”

When the bootcamp rolled out, students were leaving school early under a modified schedule, and the program ran for an hour each day after early dismissal. When full days resumed, the program continued in the same fashion. Students could also go to bootcamp on Saturday mornings for three hours. 

It’s important that the bootcamp does not interrupt the school day, said Frank Pannullo, the high school’s second vice principal. “We wanted to provide an intervention in an atmosphere that is not pulling them from the classroom, as that would only create more instructional loss,” he said.

On Saturdays, transportation is provided at the cost of $400 per day. “It is a modified bus run,” Magee said. “The bus hits key locations in the community that students can go to.”

Teachers who staff the program earn their hourly rate of $40.20 per hour. Teachers alternate, so while an English teacher or math teacher may not be after school every single day, those main subject areas will be represented at least twice during the regular school week. “We set a schedule, so students will know on what days they can get help in a particular subject,” Magee said.

As the 2021-2022 school year continued and as the district returned to normalcy while knowing that Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding would eventually run out, staff turned their attention to fiscal responsibility.

As a result, for the 2022-2023 school year, the bootcamp was tweaked, so now it is held in cycles during the second half of each marking period “when students tend to need it more,” DuBeck said.

Magee explained, “We really saw that after a marking period closed, attendance at bootcamp definitely ticked down as new topics were being introduced. So, we really focused on the second half of the marking period.”

Bengal Bootcamp has been a tremendous benefit to students, Magee said. “We track students to see where concerns are,” he said. “We learned very quickly that work completion is a substantial issue at the high school, which could be because of missing skills or a skills gap.”

Sometimes, students may be struggling because of the learning environment at home, which can make bootcamp a great option, Magee said. “Through the bootcamp, it might not be their exact teacher that stays after school,” he explained. “But they have the ability to meet with teachers and recapture skills.”

Having a different teacher may actually work in a student’s favor, as sometimes they may just need to hear something explained differently, Magee said. Moreover, the bootcamp has been “a lifeline” for parents, as the only other option for some of them would be to get help from a private tutor, which can be incredibly expensive. “We are providing the transportation, we are providing the teachers and we are also focusing on the specific skill deficit areas students need to work on – and parents have been appreciative,” he said. 

Students have consistently taken advantage of the program, DuBeck said, with 219 students checking in to use the program in its first year from March to June, in addition to 51 check-ins on Saturday. In 2022, the bootcamp served 1,500 students who checked in. This year, with the program running in cycles beginning with the second half of each marking period, there were 536 student check-ins as of the middle of January.

One of the beautiful things about the program is anyone can participate, Magee said. “If you are a B student looking to be an A student, you can come to the program,” he said. “We are not looking to exclude you from this opportunity. Likewise, if you are a C student and want to become a B student, this is an opportunity to strengthen your skills.”

With that said, the high school also has a “calculator” where staff can plug in a student’s conduct, attendance and other metrics to identify which students might benefit most by attending bootcamp. “For our students identified as approaching expectations, we are calling them down and providing them with paper invitations,” Magee said. The high school also notifies students about bootcamp via email blasts, encouraging everyone to attend.

“At the high school level, you could not mandate that students go or force them to go, so we have implemented all of these ways of inviting them per se to try to continue to get more students there and to provide more support,” DuBeck said.

While some schools rely on third parties to provide academic support, managing an in-house program works great for Barnegat, Magee said. “Here, we have control over making sure that what we need to have taught for our students to succeed and what we’ve identified as their areas of struggle are being addressed,” he said.

“At the end of the day, who knows our students better than us?” DuBeck asked. “We can constantly monitor how they are doing and change our approach based on what we know and see because it is our program.”

Program Results During the 2021-2022 school year, for students who attended Bengal Bootcamp regularly (at least once a week), the individual student data was tracked and showed the following:

  • Grade 9: 60% of students showed growth on the English language arts benchmark and 50% of students showed growth on the math benchmark.
  • Grade 10: 32% showed growth on the English language arts benchmark and 33% of students showed growth on the math benchmark
  • Grade 11: 43% of students showed growth on the English language arts benchmark and 54% of students showed growth on the math benchmark.
  • Grade 12: There were no benchmarks for Grade 12. However, 94% of regular Bengal Bootcamp participants passed English language arts for the year and 84% of students passed math for the year.

Students take three benchmarks: A, B and C, which are given in October, January and May, DuBeck explained. “We are excited to see the growth continue in future years,” she said.

Dr. Brian Latwis, superintendent, said one of the pillars of the district revolves around “student ownership of the educational journey.” The bootcamp provides “another safety net where students might be struggling to meet goals,” he said. Participating students can also earn the chance to retake assessments, he said.

Bootcamp students receive regular updates on their progress, Magee said. It’s great to see students showing off how much they have advanced “like showing off a straight A report card,” he said. 

Students who make gains are invited to a breakfast each marking period where they are recognized, he said. “It’s not a Pop Tart breakfast,” Magee said. “They get scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes. We also recognize the teachers – it gives everyone a shot in the arm.”

Even students who may not have shown academic improvement are recognized based on input from their teachers, according to Samantha Burke, the high school’s instructional coach. For instance, since Bengal Bootcamp supports students beyond academics, some participants may show more progress in social and/or emotional areas, she said.

Often, students who walk by the breakfast ask what is going on, Magee said. Each breakfast creates some chatter around bootcamp, and when that happens, new students start to attend.

Throughout the program, board members and school administrators have been incredibly supportive, DuBeck said. “We initially implemented it using CARES Act funding, but now we have to continue it with our own local funding, so we definitely need that support,” she said.

Although created during a pandemic, Magee thinks there will always be a need for a program like Bengal Bootcamp. “That’s not to say it is always going to look the same,” he said. “But there is always a need, and our primary focus should be helping our students succeed and to better themselves.”

Latwis added, “I absolutely believe this will be a long-term initiative for the district.” One of the best things about the program, he said, is that even high-achieving students can leverage it to improve academically. “I actually went to a TED Talk given by the founder of Khan Academy (Sal Khan),” he said. “His mindset was even if a student gets 95% of everything correct, that still leaves a 5% gap of material that they didn’t master.”

Everything as it pertains to academics is built upon a prerequisite skill, Latwis observed, and it’s incumbent upon the school to give every student – even very high achievers – the opportunity to learn skills they did not previously master, he said.

Moving Forward in Bloomfield Bloomfield Public Schools has been focusing on tutoring at the middle school and high school levels for at least six years now, according to Claire Keller, director of student achievement.

The district has also provided tutoring to elementary school students for several years as well, but only at buildings that receive title funds. “Our tutoring program at the elementary level was much more individualized to the building until we received ESSER funds,” she said.

After the pandemic hit, however, the district used Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to provide a more streamlined approach to tutoring at all of its schools.

“We have eight elementary schools, and we have a coordinator at each school who is in charge of the tutoring program,” Keller explained. Tutoring is provided at those schools during allotted hours, Monday through Thursday before and after school, for an hour a day. Teachers get a schedule of hours to work throughout the year, four days a week. 

The elementary schools focus on helping students in language arts and math, with some alternating what they focus on each week, Keller said. Students attend on an invitation-only basis, with the district targeting students who need it most but who are not already receiving other services like intervention or special services. The program serves about 750 students throughout the year. 

“We pick a core group of kids that we focus on for a period of 10 weeks – and then we may work with a different group and add different kids for the next 10 weeks. That is our general philosophy in serving elementary students,” Keller said.

For the middle school students, tutoring is also provided four days a week, but for 45 minutes and only after school. Any student can get homework help – and the program serves about 1,000 students per year, including repeats. 

There’s also a program for high school students where students can drop in after school to get homework help, which serves more than 2,000 students per year, including repeats.

During COVID-19, when students were attending school virtually or on a hybrid basis, tutors had virtual office hours when they provided instruction. “That was really successful and gave us ideas for different things we could do,” Keller said.

One of the strategies that came out of the pandemic, she said, was to provide middle school students the chance to take advantage of a homework hotline at night. Last year, it was “super beneficial” for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that some students who participate in sports can’t always take advantage of tutoring after school and need help when they get home, Keller said. “We just started this up again in December and are targeting students similar to last year.,” she said.

While anyone can access the hotline, which is actually over Zoom, students are often invited to get help if they are struggling,” Keller said. This school year is the second year the hotline has been offered, and it’s worked out well, she said.

The district pays staff a teacher rate to provide tutoring services that go beyond the school day. Paying for the districtwide tutoring program is a struggle even though the teacher rate is much less than what a private tutor would earn, Keller said.

“This is a big level of commitment,” she said, noting that the district has a number of teachers tutoring students before and after school throughout the district.

In high school, the district also has a built-in extra help period on Wednesdays at the end of the day, which allows students to meet with whomever they need to get extra support before the regular school day ends. “That has been great, and it is open to all students,” she said.

Some of the classrooms during that time are “jam packed,” she said. Some students take advantage of that built-in time and still attend after-school tutoring. “They might focus on language arts when the day ends early and then go to math in the afternoon,” she said.

One of the concerns Keller has about the tutoring program moving forward is that the district has been paying for it with ESSER funds, and while costs are covered for this year and part of next, the money will eventually run out. “We are optimistic that school districts may continue to receive ESSER funding to allow the opportunity to continue to address learning loss caused by the pandemic,” she said.

The cost to operate the tutoring program on a K-12 basis is about $440,000 during the school year – and an additional $200,000 to cover the summer, she said. While the district has used ESSER funds to support the program recently, including for part of next year, it will need to add district funds next year to support the continuation of the program, she said. “Using only title funds cannot pay for the depth of this program,” she said. “That will be a big conversation.”

She added, “I do think as the years go on, we might change how we run the program – and we might not have as many kids that need it. But for now, where we are post-pandemic, there are still enough kids who need extra services. This is our way of addressing those kids who need extra support.”

At a minimum, every school should offer some type of after-school support, Keller said. Something as simple as a “homework drop-in” can go a long way, she said. “In the lower grades, I think offering extra help to targeted groups is beneficial,” she said, noting that in the elementary grades, the district is already seeing a drop in the number of children who need intervention and “at some point, it will stabilize.” Even so, there are always going to be kids who need extra support, she said.

The district also offers a tutoring program during the summer, which has been well attended, Keller said. With ESSER funding, all the schools were able to run summer programs, but that may change moving forward.

As the mother of two elementary-aged children herself, Keller knows how much of an impact the pandemic had on students. “Virtual learning and learning through a computer were very hard – it was very hard to pick up certain skills,” she said. “Even having a parent there who was an educator wasn’t always very helpful – it’s more conducive to the educational process to be in a class full of kids, and there are understandable gaps.”

One thing is clear to Keller: Tutoring can really help students.

“Sometimes, students need that extra time,” she said. 

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.