Many students at Farrington High have fallen behind academically as the school year comes to an end after months of online learning and pandemic-related disruptions.

Just down the road, students at Honolulu Community College need jobs and experience.

The two Kalihi institutions decided to join forces by having the college students serve as tutors for the high schoolers in one of several initiatives aimed at helping Hawaii’s youth catch up so the next school year can get off to a strong start.

“We know that high dosage tutoring is a really effective intervention,” said Alex Harris, vice president of programs at Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, which is funding the project. “We know efforts like ours can help hundreds of kids, but (in) the state of where we are, we need to be helping tens of thousands of kids, and the only way to do that is a concerted public focus.”

Farrington High School still has 300 students doing distance learning. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The local partnership could serve as a template for other schools as educators seek to provide tutoring options to all students, not just those whose families can afford to pay for the services. The Hawaii Department of Education also has contracted with several tutoring firms to offer one-on-one or small group sessions in public schools.

Farrington High School, which has 2,400 students, is one of several campuses that has seen many students remain in distance learning mode — up to 300 — even as it opened its doors for in-person classes in January. It is hoping to resume classes as normal when the new school year begins in August and wants students to be ready.

Principal Al Carganilla said he’s especially concerned about the ninth graders who never had a chance to transition to their new school or acclimate to a new schedule, make friends and forge relationships with teachers.

“They were thrown into (virtual) classes, they don’t know their teachers, their campus,” he said. “It’s a different dynamic.”

Students who have remained online this year relied on Agilix Buzz, a learning software not taught by the school’s regular teachers, that allows the students to work at their own pace. But it’s self-guided and operates outside the school’s regular, in-person curriculum.

“We have one teacher in charge of them, but if they finish the course, they get the grade,” Carganilla said. “The grades are generated by the amount of work or the completion rate.”

However, concerns are high that many students are falling behind in core subjects like English, math and social studies. That’s why Carganilla decided to partner with Honolulu Community College in a two-phase program that began this semester.

“We know that high dosage tutoring is a really effective intervention.” — Alex Harris of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation

Hired at $15 an hour, the HCC tutors will provide tutoring in these subjects and offer insights on what it’s like to attend college.

At least seven tutors are available in a Zoom room from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the rest of the school year, ready and willing to take on any subject, particularly for the distance learners.

“Our relationship with Farrington is very strong and this is very much a joint effort,” said Karen Lee, the college’s interim chancellor. “Many Farrington High grads will end up here, so it’s a win-win for us, for them to get ready for college.”

HCC students plan to then “embed” themselves in virtual summer school classes taught by Farrington High teachers to reach the most struggling students.

“HCC students would sit in on the class, learn the same stuff and stay on (the platform) an additional hour or two to continue to work with ninth graders on homework so they’re ready the next day,” Lee said.

Because the idea was hatched several months ago, before vaccinations fully ramped up, the format was designed to be all-virtual this summer. But if case counts stay low and everybody is comfortable, those summer school sessions could very well be held in person, said Carganilla.

Education leaders see college students as one answer to helping provide tutoring to K-12 students. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The partnership is made possible through a $50,000 grant provided by the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. It is one of three proposals awarded by the Hawaii-based foundation earlier this year to bolster student learning and help them recover academic skills through local tutoring partnerships.

The other two projects funded through the grant are a partnership between Castle High School’s Engineering Academy and the University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Engineering and several Kalihi-area elementary schools and Hawaii Literacy, a statewide nonprofit.

The push for academic tutoring following the pandemic year is a nationwide focus. But the rollout of such plans hit a snag earlier this year when the Hawaii DOE met resistance to its plan to select private companies, some based on the mainland, to offer tutoring to schools in low-income communities using Title I funds.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association objected to the use of federal funds for such “private tutors” at the expense of possibly preserving teacher positions when the department’s budget was still uncertain.

The DOE has pre-approved five vendors that can be contracted by individual schools.

“The DOE came out with some plans on tutoring, to focus on kids two grade levels behind — they lost the communication battle where they fell into a trap of ‘private tutors versus public teachers’ and unions were making the case funds should go to teachers,” Harris said.

“I hope these three grants show that’s a really false trade-off, that you can mobilize partners in support of public school goals.”

Each nonprofit partner received up to $75,000 to execute the project. The money supporting these efforts will help pay tutors as well as DOE teachers who choose to continue to stay on this summer to teach.

In the case of Castle High, UH Manoa engineering students will be focusing on boosting math and science skills for all high school students who ask for help this summer. Interested students can sign up here.

“There is certainly a large need because of the pandemic to stem that learning loss, but we don’t want to exclude (others); we want to encourage those who want to get ahead,” said Kim Perez Hults, director of marketing and outreach relations at the College of Engineering.

Signs announce the first day of school last year at Kahuku High and Intermediate School on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Castle High STEAM Director Ryan Saito said a key advantage of the partnership was that the students and their tutors would have a lot in common.

“By having tutors closer in age and experiences to our students, I believe that this may make it easier for them to relate to the tutors, and may help in building relationships,” he said. “This may help our students to feel comfortable in coming to these sessions and asking for help.”

Amanda Neitzel, assistant research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education, stressed the importance of relationship-building between tutors and students.

“It’s the social human interaction that is so important,” she said during a recent Education Writers Association panel. “Tutors can give more of that personalized one-on-one attention even in a small group, and I think a lot of kids are going to need that this year.”

Critics fear that for-profit national tutoring companies are too removed from the needs of local communities to successfully reach students, though many hire tutors from that area. It can depend on the company’s approach and strategy.

One approved DOE vendor, University Instructors, Inc., a Virginia-based subsidiary of Public Consulting Group, works with more than 5,000 school districts across the U.S.

Jim Popp, the founder and CEO, said the firm will “communicate with (Hawaii school) districts and find out what they need.” In some cases, they’ve already heard back from schools asking if any tutors speak Hawaiian or saying it’s not in their budget at this time.

“We’d begin with virtual (tutoring) if it’s an immediate need. We already have proactively started potential sourcing of tutors and educators in Hawaii so we can be ready,” he said.

Harris is hopeful these partnerships will be mutually beneficial.

“College students need to work, too, so who knows, for some of them this experience might pull them towards teaching or youth development,” he said.

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