graphic by Caroline Hobson
Remember when you sat at the kitchen table, crying, trying to learn algebraic equations? What about spending hours on end trying to write an essay when the prompt is confusing? Ask any student, and they will tell you there are plenty of midnights when they cram for tests and go to sleep frustrated.
Of course, parents are just as frustrated as students when it comes to offering help.
There is often a disconnect between parent and teacher communications, as well as the parents’ ability to help their child. This intensifies the emotions.
One solution is tutoring. The downside is that those programs tend to cost hundreds of dollars, and leave most kids thinking they are “dumb” because they need the extra help.
Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) is solving the learning gap with the implementation of TutorMe. With TutorMe’s 24/7 tutoring connection offered to students grades six through twelve, help is truly at the press of a button.
By mid fall of the 2021-2022 school year, FCPS had launched their partnership with TutorMe, a two-year, $800,000 investment using Covid relief funds, a price tag of approximately $17 per student per year.
The $800,000 came from what is called the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ARP ESSER Grants). This funding is from the U.S. Department of Education and was established as part of the coronavirus relief. The federal grant has parameters, and it is specifically targeted for learning loss or disrupted learning from the pandemic.
FCPS Director of Middle Schools and contract manager for TutorMe, Tom Saunders considers TutorMe a “long term investment” and “one that will benefit students for years to come.” Saunders was part of the team that select TutorMe.
“We had twelve viable vendors who came forward and presented their ideas to us. We graded these vendors . . . blindly to prevent a bias from forming. Then we unblinded them to find the best ones. TutorMe was actually in the top three in all categories. . . TutorMe ranked number one on accessibility, safety, and the number of tutors available,” said Saunders.
After reviewing each of the vendors, FCPS chose TutorMe.
“This product needed to be versatile and one for students who are in AP courses or the Dual Enrollment program, as well as middle school students who are really at the beginning of their math careers. . . TutorMe fulfilled each of the requirements and ensured that each student would receive quality help,” said Saunders.
Do we need another virtual program?
One aspect of pandemic learning during the 2020-2021 school year that everyone benefited from was “teacher office hours.” Students were able to access two hours of one to one or small group tutoring sessions daily.
“I really enjoyed office hours because I was able to talk to the teacher one on one and understand the concepts that I was struggling with. Since it was offered for several hours after school every day, I often got help on multiple subjects. . . It was just really nice to have individual or small group help when I was studying,” said senior Georgia Enos. These office hours were in the afternoons because formal instruction ended at about 12:30 p.m.
However, once virtual and hybrid learning ended and FCPS shifted back to in-person learning, office hours became a pandemic luxury.
“If you remember from the pandemic, there were some ‘pearls’ [hidden gems] that came out. One of those pearls, that we wanted to continue upholding even after virtual school, was teachers’ office hours. At about the same time that we discovered the benefit of office hours, we discovered that there were other, similar sites that offered assistance at the college level. This is essentially where we found the idea for the TutorMe program,” said Saunders.
The only certainty that FCPS had over summer 2021 was that the pandemic was here to stay. With the rise and fall in Covid cases, the board of education wanted a tutoring program that would be available regardless of in-person or hybrid learning.
“We really wanted to move TutorMe forward because we wanted a wrap-around service for kids. . . We wanted something available to students no matter what, which meant that if we came back and things were great, TutorMe would still be helpful. If we came back and had to return to hybrid learning, TutorMe would still be helpful and available to everyone,” said Saunders.
Josh Gallener, a Client Success Manager at TutorMe, worked with Saunders to help make the FCPS idea of TutorMe into a reality.
“We are worldwide, and we span everything from K-12 to graduate level courses to professional courses. . . since we are worldwide we have time zones, and regardless of the time zone I would say that the most popular times that students utilize the tutoring programs are very late nights (two in the morning) and the evenings until around ten. It’s really all about matching the students schedule,” said Gallener.
The Safety and Quality
The concept of TutorMe can be a little intimidating to parents at first.
“As a parent I did have my doubts in the beginning. I sat on the call with my child, as they are only in seventh grade, to make sure the call was safe and worthwhile. The tutor was nice, respectful, and diminished many doubts that I had about the program and its safety. I definitely would recommend parents and students trying out the program to learn the ropes and see what TutorMe is all about, ” said a Windsor Knolls Middle School parent.
Each tutor has had a background check. They are required to abide by TutorMe and FCPS expectations.
According to Gallener, all tutors have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. In more specialized or advanced subjects, tutors may be required to have a masters degree in what they are tutoring.
“There were a lot of different options for me to get help. I got help writing an English essay and then with AP Chemistry. Both were beneficial, but I think the AP chemistry help was a little more in depth. My tutor had a bachelors in chemistry and was able to help me in a way that I couldn’t receive from a general tutor,” said senior Chloe Trevino.
“I would say the higher the subject level, the more difficult the class, say mechanical engineering, you’re probably going to be receiving a tutor with a PhD in our system, and you as a student will always be able to see the credentials of the tutor that you are working with, even before you start a working session,” said Gallener.
Tutors provide some relief to teachers who are already experiencing high levels of stress and student/school demands. Teachers are often available to answer questions throughout the school day, evening, and most of the time on the weekends. But every time a student needs a quick response, or an hour long session, these experienced tutors can help.
“Teachers are working harder than they ever have before. So when after school comes around, with all the other responsibilities, there isn’t a whole lot of people available to do tutoring. So we felt like this was one of the best decisions for both teachers and students,” said Saunders.
FCPS has in-person and virtual tutoring after school and in the evenings, but not all students utilize the in- person options, which is why TutorMe was considered “a program for everyone.”
How can students access the tutoring program?
Students can access the TutorMe portal through their FCPS Bookmarks. They need to launch the Clever Portal and log into the Frederick County Public School directory to be connected with the TutorMe site. Finally students click on the TutorMe app and input their information based on what they need help with and they are connected to a tutor
“I liked how I could pop in really quick to ask a question and leave as soon as I was done. I never had to spend a lot of time waiting for a teacher to help me. I didn’t feel like I was forced to participate either, which I enjoyed,” said Trevino.
Each session is recorded, and there are follow-up opportunities to rate the tutor and give feedback.
“We hope that the students utilize the feedback feature at the end of their session to help improve the system as a whole. If there was ever an uncomfortable situation or something that the student felt was inappropriate,it is recorded when you give the feedback, and we notify the teachers,” said Saunders.
There also is a balance between safety and comfort during each session with the microphone and camera feature. The tutor is expected to mirror what the student does. If the student turns on their camera and microphone, the tutor is expected to mirror that.
“My tutor was great. They helped me with math and answered all my questions. I didn’t feel comfortable turning my camera on, but the tutor was respectful and asked if there was anything he could do like turn on his camera or mic to help the session. We only used the microphone feature but it was still a really good experience,” said a Windsor Knolls student.
Reaching a broader audience
Originally, the TutorMe program was designed for college students, so the transition from college to high school students was the first step in broadening the program.
The middle schools implemented the program so that each student could experience TutorMe at school first; therefore, 100% of the students have tried the platform. For high school, the engagement rate is lower, about 65% as of early November. It will take time for high school students to discover which courses and which tutors are most needed.
The company has received a Gold Stevie Award for Founding Team of the Year and Fastest Growing Tech Company of the Year.
“We are growing at an insane pace due to the digital learning challenges. With growth comes new challenges, and we are constantly building new improvements. We have a mobile app coming out within the next few months which will further expand our presence as a tutoring company,” said Gallener.