Help is on the way for Hawaii students who are struggling academically during the pandemic.

In what appears to be a first-of-a-kind arrangement for the state, some public schools will begin offering small group or one-on-one tutoring starting this month through the end of the calendar year via private agencies paid with Title I or other existing funds.

The state Department of Education has tapped five companies to provide academic tutoring to select K-12 students in a virtual or in-person setting before, during or after regular school hours in a bid to reach children whose families may not otherwise be able to obtain the service.

Kaneohe Elementary School cafeteria summer school during COVID-19 pandemic.
Kaneohe Elementary’s cafeteria seen in the summer of 2020. Private tutoring contracts would be paid through schools’ Title I funds or other existing funds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The strategy underscores a top-level concern that many students are experiencing academic decline due to the challenges of distance learning in the pandemic and need extra support beyond the traditional teaching structure.

While campus closures due to the pandemic that began last year fueled the rise of “pandemic pods,” or small private instructional groups led by tutors hired by families, it sparked concerns about equity since many couldn’t afford such an opportunity.

Participation in the tutoring program will be determined by individual schools.

The tutoring contracts will be funded by “existing Title I and/or other available funds,” not through a grant or federal CARES Act money, DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita said in an email.

Tutors will be provided to schools on an “as-needed basis and actual purchases will depend on the availability of funds,” he wrote.

“I know we’re all falling behind on our schoolwork so it would definitely be a help if I can have someone help catch me up.” — Lea Oishi, student at Roosevelt High School

According to the DOE, tutors will offer students a personalized learning plan in reading, writing, math, science and English language proficiency. Teachers will select which students are eligible to participate.

As a stay-at-home mother, Maggie Hong has been fortunate to be able to assist her three children – two who attend Koko Head Elementary and one who attends Kaiser High — with online learning this year.

But she’s also had to supplement her kids’ existing curriculum with an outside English course because they spent most of the first semester on Acellus Learning Accelerator, the controversial DOE-selected program that she called “deficient on its own.”

While Hong said she can serve as her kids’ academic tutor and coach, not every parent is similarly situated or has the resources to hunt down supplementary material.

She welcomed the education department’s plan to hire tutors.

“I think overall, it would benefit a lot of families in the state,” she said. “I worry for public school children whose parents have to work and rely on Acellus to educate their kids — that is troubling to me.”

Schools Will Determine Participation And Choose Students

In an Oct. 23 request for proposals for outside tutoring agencies, the DOE said COVID-19 “presented unprecedented issues related to student learning” and many students “may benefit from supplemental academic support.”

First-quarter grades released by the DOE demonstrate that students have struggled to attain proficiency in core subjects like English and math. The percentage of failing marks increases among students who are economically disadvantaged, have special needs, or for whom English is not their first language.

Grades for the second quarter ending Dec. 18 have not yet been posted to the DOE data dashboard, which monitors progress on various metrics related to school reopenings.

The DOE opened the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 17 with mostly distance learning, save for the most vulnerable students, due to coronavirus fears. Many schools began gradually bringing back more students to campus in November, while other schools planned to phase back to in-person early this year.

Lea Oishi, a sophomore at Roosevelt High who is not scheduled to return to campus until next month, said it’s been “hard to learn through your computer screen, and getting assigned a whole bunch of work you’re expected to understand even if the teacher doesn’t explain it to you.”

“I know we’re all falling behind on our schoolwork so it would definitely be a help if I can have someone help catch me up,” she said.

Nearly half of Hawaii’s students come from economically disadvantaged households. Schools where at least 47.2% of the student body is low-income receive Title I funding, which can help pay for things like part-time teachers, professional development and classroom supplies. In total, the DOE had amassed $56 million of Title 1 funding for the 2021 fiscal year.

But many schools have found themselves on shaky financial ground amid declining student enrollment due to COVID-19 and subsequent reductions in state funds.

Hawaii teachers narrowly averted being forced to take unpaid leave this month after Gov. David Ige postponed state worker furloughs until at least July following the recent $900 billion federal relief bill.

Tutoring Won’t Solve Other Problems

Julie Reyes Oda is the head of the math department at Nanakuli High and Intermediate, a Title I school where nearly three-fourths of students come from a low-income household.

She questioned the usefulness of tutoring when most of the school’s students who received failing grades last semester didn’t show up for virtual class or turned in no work.

“If the issue is attendance, tutoring is not the solution, because you’re asking the kids who don’t show to show up more,” she said.

Sam Kim, owner and president of Kahala Academic Center, a Honolulu-based franchise of Sylvan Learning selected for the DOE program, said he will offer a discounted tutoring rate for DOE schools but declined to quote a specific figure.

“Because of COVID, a lot of students are studying at home, but not all students are comfortable with this type of learning,” he said. “(For) students who are falling behind … sometimes more direct intervention or help is needed.”

Another selected vendor, Sylvan Learning Center of Mililani, is based out of Hawaii but a franchisee of mainland-based Inspired Education. Three other tutoring firms DOE selected are based outside Hawaii, including One on One Learning in Miami, which works with school districts around the country. Clarification: a previous version of this story said four other tutoring firms were mainland-based.

One on One founder Marcel Monnar said his company employs tutors nationwide, including in Hawaii, but he expects the partnership with DOE to begin in a virtual mode.

“It’s not a new need, but a new cause of the need,” he said, referring to such tutoring services. “There have always been children that have struggled in school. In this particular case, there are more students struggling nationwide due to the pandemic.”

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