Student teachers and K-12 students help each other close pandemic learning gaps

By Mary Niederberger

[Alana Mason, a kindergarten student at Manchester Academic Charter School, works with tutor Natalie DiGiorno. Photo by Heather Mull]

Jaion Pollard, 7, stepped away from his laptop at The Pittsburgh Project’s Northside after school program, raised his hands in the air and danced. He had just provided his tutor with the correct answer to a homework problem. 

On the laptop screen, his after-school tutor, Mckenzie Taylor, a student teacher from Carlow University, shared in his celebration with a smile. 

Jaion, a second grade student at Manchester Academic Charter School, and Taylor have been paired this winter and spring in a virtual relationship that helps Jaion catch up on learning and academic skills he missed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their partnership also provides Taylor with one-on-one and small group tutoring experience she stood to miss out on because of pandemic school closures and visitor limits.

Jaion might not understand the complexities of pandemic learning loss, but he knows that it’s “fun” to work with “Miss Mckenzie” and that “she is nice.”

Jaion Pollard, 7, listens to instructions from tutor McKenzie Taylor. Photo by Heather Mull.

The tutoring program that connected the duo was designed by ASSET Inc. to provide “high-dosage” tutoring to students in grades K-12 in under-resourced neighborhoods and to give student teachers an opportunity to make up for hours of hands-on learning time they lost during the pandemic. High-dosage tutoring involves meeting one-on-one or in very small groups with students three times per week. 

A national analysis done by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit education organization and testing company, showed that students in grades 3-8 returned to classes last fall nine to 11 percentage points behind in math and three to seven percentage points behind in reading. The results were worse for Black, brown and low-income students.

Locally, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported that state test scores for the 2020-2021 school year, released by the state Department of Education in early March, showed proficiency rates in English language arts, math and science were down significantly across the Pittsburgh Public Schools. In some cases the declines were between 20 to 30 percentage points.  

“There are two sets of learners affected by the pandemic. You have your K-12 students and the teachers who are in training. We were watching cohort after cohort of teachers not getting the experience they would normally have,” said Sarah Toulouse, executive director of ASSET Inc, which created the virtual tutoring program.

Called PALS, which stands for Partnerships to Advance Learning in STEM, the tutoring project is funded through grants from the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation. Though it is STEM-focused, tutors work with students in all subjects.

PALS is currently operating through three out-of-school-time providers that serve the Northside, Lincoln-Larimer and Sheraden neighborhoods. In addition to the Pittsburgh Project, they are Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center and HOPE for Tomorrow. ASSET provides equipment, including laptops, document cameras, headphones and wifi hotspots, if it is not available at the afterschool agencies. 

To date, students from a dozen Pittsburgh Public Schools have participated in PALS tutoring. In addition, the program has served students from Manchester Academic, Young Scholars, Urban Academy and Urban Pathways K-5 College charters schools and parochial school Nazareth Prep.

While most preservice teachers were able to be placed as classroom student teachers during the pandemic – sometimes in remote settings – those who needed “high-dosage” tutoring hours required for their degrees did not get the same access, according to officials from the universities involved in the PALS program. 

Elementary and secondary students in the PALS program currently get 45-minute sessions twice a week. ASSET is working toward increasing the frequency as more tutors come onboard, Toulouse said. 

“[PALS] doesn’t only provide help with learning loss with children, it’s also helping to support our preservice teachers to get the hours they need to become a certified teacher,” said Tanya  Baronti, apprenticeship coaching coordinator in the education and liberal studies department at Carlow University. 

Baronti said the state eased its requirement on hours of service for student teachers during the pandemic to allow them to graduate. But that move left students without the professional experience they need to be successful as teachers. 

Even as pandemic restrictions ease, at least for the present, Baronti said she’s hoping the PALS program continues because it makes it easier for college students to participate in tutoring. The after school hours work well with the student teachers’ academic demands and the virtual setting eliminates transportation issues and sharpens the tutors’ online skills.The virtual setting also eliminates geographical barriers that would have prevented students from outside of the Pittsburgh area from participating. 

The PALS program started on a small scale in the spring of 2021 with about a dozen students, mostly from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and a handful of student tutors from Duquesne University and Westminster College. The effort was a collaboration between ASSET, the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative and A+ Schools. At the time, the PLC was looking for ways to increase access to tutors for low-income students. 

This initial group of tutors worked with students who participated from home via Zoom. ASSET provided professional development for the student teachers and had online support for them during the sessions. 

Duquesne senior Jessica Cetorelli was among the first group of online student tutors. Initially  she struggled to connect with students in the virtual environment where they could easily walk away or turn their cameras off. 

“The first lesson was fractions and I feel like it would have been so much easier to do it in person,” she said. 

She said one student would leave sessions because he thought he didn’t need her help. Another turned off his camera but later revealed he did so because he was embarrassed about a new haircut. A female student would disappear in the middle of a session. She eventually told Cetorelli she was hungry. The student agreed to let her tutor know when she was leaving a session to get a snack and when she would be back. 

The experience taught her “respect needs to be earned both ways in order for a student to do well. I feel like so many teachers will automatically assume they have the students’ respect from the beginning,” Cetorelli said. “It does mean being more open and understanding and knowing when to give leniency and structure in where you set your lines.”

She worked hard to keep her students engaged and used sites such as Toy Theater  that provided free virtual toys and manipulatives for lessons. For a lesson about measures of volume, she searched her home for various containers to hold up on the screen to help a student visualize the size difference between a cup and a liter. 

Cetorelli rewarded a student who liked Curious George books with reading pages of a book together if she finished her lesson early. With other students, she played hangman on a whiteboard if they completed their assignments. 

“There are little things you can do with the students that I learned,” she said. 

As time went on, she said she became impressed with the way the students adapted. “They have a lot of resilience in being able to learn that way,” she said.

After the small trial, ASSET partnered in the fall of 2021 with Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center on a tutoring model that involved students from local schools coming to the center after school to participate in virtual tutoring. The tutor base was expanded to include student teachers from East Stroudsburg, Eastern and Marywood universities and Juniata college. 

During this model, the tutors learned the challenges of working with students in an afterschool provider setting. There were more distractions than before when the group of students participated from home.

 “They became aware of the chaotic nature of tutoring in an afterschool center atmosphere,” Toulouse said. 

She said organizers “fumbled their way through this, fostering resiliency and self-advocacy on both sides in the process.” Tutors learned techniques to keep their students engaged and to help them through the academic concepts they struggled with. Students learned rules about staying at their computers and focusing on their work.

In January, the program expanded once again with a partnership with Carlow University and University of Pittsburgh Johnstown. Currently 40 Carlow tutors and 13 UPJ tutors work with between 90-100 students in afterschool programs.There is also a small contingent of students from Manchester Academic Charter School who connect with tutors from their homes. 

The students in the afterschool programs use their homework assignments for the basis of their tutoring. Using document cameras, they share their worksheets with the tutors who help them through the exercises. The process gives the tutors a chance to see what concepts the students don’t understand and where they need more practice. 

Aubrey King, 7, also a second grade student at Manchester Academic, said she likes that tutors “see what I am having trouble with.” During a recent session at The Pittsburgh Project she worked on money values with tutor Natalie DiGiorno, a student teacher from Carlow. 

“We already did coins. Now we are doing dollar bills,” Aubrey said. 

Tutor Natalie DiGiorni uses a whiteboard to teach a lesson on money values. Photo by Mary Niederberger.

At one point when Aubrey had difficulty with the lesson, DiGiorno pulled out a whiteboard to illustrate how one $5 bill and three $1 bills added up to a total of $8. DiGiorna said she’s learned that using a whiteboard at times helps to make the lessons more interactive. “You can’t just sit there and talk to them the whole time,” she said. 

DiGiorno said her tutoring experience “was a little intimidating at first” but with the training and online support provided by ASSET, she has grown more comfortable with the online setting and has found ways to connect with the students.

 “It really has been eye-opening and very meaningful for me because I know how important and essential it is for these students,” DiGiorno said.

At the beginning of each session, DiGiorno makes a point of asking the students about their day. Sometimes the question gets little response. But at other times, students unload the baggage of their day.

“I had one little girl telling me she wasn’t having a good day. She was punched at school. I talked her through it and told her she should let her teacher know. RIght after, I could tell she was so much more engaged with me. She knew I wanted to help and cared about her,” DiGiorno said. 

“Honestly I just try to be someone that they look forward to seeing. Most of the time I have typically the same students that I work with and it’s so nice that they are so excited when they come on the screen.”

Nina Girard, associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown, said the PALS program provided some of her student teachers with their first experience dealing with students from urban settings. 

“That has been invaluable as future educators to see the kind of different needs and challenges of students,” Girard said. “Some of our students were shocked when they worked with these students and saw the lack of resources. It really puts pedagogy into practice.”

Girard said during professional development sessions with ASSET staff, her student teachers also participated in discussions on topics such as unconscious bias and how to become culturally responsive.

Jasmine Davis, an early childhood consultant who is working on a master’s degree in early childhood education supervision at Carlow, said she so enjoyed her experience tutoring with PALS that she has continued the work even though she met the required hours for her academic course. It was her first experience with online learning and she and the students learned virtual skills together, she said.

”To me It was a great learning experience,” Davis said.

Davis got to experience the program from both sides as Jaion is her son. Both of them started in the program early this year, but Davis initially had no idea her son was in the same program. 

“He would come home and say he loved his tutor. He was very excited about the experience, which to me was surprising because he didn’t give that energy at home with his homework,” Davis said. 

Now that he knows his mother is a PALS tutor, Jaion has promised to give her the same enthusiasm at home when doing homework.

Toulouse said when the college semesters are completed this spring, ASSET staff “will be debriefing” and “refining” in preparation for fall when the PALS program will resume in partnership with Carlow. ASSET is also seeking federal and state funding to add additional universities and out-of-school-time providers. 

She hopes the program will serve as a model for other communities. 

“I see this as one of the many ways we can get at accelerated learning…We are really excited to grow it,” Toulouse said.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at & on Twitter @MaryNied.

This story is a part of PLAYING THE LONG GAME: Rebounding from unfinished learning, an on going series about pandemic learning in Pittsburgh made possible by support from The Grable Foundation.


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