Akron Hope staff and volunteers prepare an end of year drive-thru celebration for students. Photo taken in 2020 by Michelle Hill.

Akron Hope continues tutoring program virtually

Abbey Bashor

Even in non-pandemic times, running a classroom tutoring program is no easy feat. 

Between coordinating student and volunteer schedules, and creating weekly practice assignments, there’s a great deal of organizing that must take place before lessons can even begin. 

Over the past year, COVID-19 has made these efforts more challenging and more important than ever. A lack of face-to-face instruction has raised concerns about the effect on student outcomes and potential learning losses. Supplemental instruction, such as tutoring, has also taken a hit. 

Thanks to programs like Akron Hope; however, the goal of helping local students reach their benchmarks remains a priority.

Akron Hope, now a program of The Well CDC, was founded by Jen Vliet while she was a student at the University of Akron in 2015. Following the sudden loss of her cousin, Chad Cooke, the previous year, Vliet was looking for ways to get involved in the Akron community. 

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Before long, she thought to establish the local chapter of Charleston Hope — a nonprofit founded by Chad’s girlfriend, Emily Hoisington, that provided resources to teachers in underserved districts in Charleston, S.C. Vliet knew the couple had wanted to expand the program to other cities and jumped at the chance to bring it to Akron.

“I said ‘yes’ to expanding Charleston Hope to Akron and we started with the Adopt-a-Classroom program, which provided gifts to students during the holidays,” Vliet says of the program’s early start. “We chose Helen Arnold [Community Learning Center] specifically because I had already been tutoring there with a program called Seeds of Change and had built some relationships within the school.”

The need for a tutoring program first became apparent when Vliet was at UA, where she was pursuing a degree in education and spending time in local elementary classrooms. Around 2015, Vliet met Melissa Berzito, a third-grade teacher new to Helen Arnold. Vliet and her Akron Hope team learned from Berzito that classroom volunteers would make a huge difference in helping prepare students for state testing. 

“Being my first year teaching third grade, and with third grade being a testing year, I was a little nervous,” says Berzito. “I reached out to Jen to ask her if she maybe knew a few people who might want to work with my students, just in a small group, to help them get ready for the test. In a matter of a month she had gathered about 10-15 volunteers to come in every week, which was so much more than I ever expected.”

From there, tutoring quickly became an essential part of third grade at Helen Arnold, which is located in Sherbondy Hill.

Each semester for the last six years, Berzito has welcomed volunteers into her classroom to work with students. For 10-12 weeks, an hour every Friday is dedicated to one-on-one tutoring and mentorship.

“It has really helped my class be able to pass the test and do well. They form great friendships,” says Berzito. “I could say something a million times about the best way to take a test or some test-taking strategies, and as soon as their mentor would say it, they remember it.”

Berzito also explains why third grade is such a critical year for students: About 80% of students at Helen Arnold enter the year with a below-grade reading level, some even at a kindergarten or first-grade level. The Ohio State Test (OST) that they must pass in order to move on to fourth grade is written at a fifth grade level for English Language Arts. The gap that must be overcome is significant.

The challenges that some students face outside the classroom are no less daunting.

“They don’t always have somebody with them at all times, helping them with their homework or able to read to them. Sometimes books are inaccessible,” says Berzito. “Sometimes the encouragement is not necessarily there at home. It’s just kind of survival mode. So passing a test is the last thing on their minds.”

The classroom mentors help make up for a great deal of what might otherwise be lost.

“When [students] are able to get all of that out of their heads and spend an hour with their mentor, it’s almost like they’re OK. It’s OK to be a kid again, and it’s OK to just learn and do well.”

The program is popular not just among third-graders, but also younger and older students.

“The younger kids see it and they can’t wait to get to third grade. And then the older kids see it, and they miss being with their mentor because they’ve moved on,” says Berzito.

After a few years, Akron Hope became a program of The Well CDC. As a community development corporation, The Well focuses on housing, economic and place-making initiatives in Middlebury. 

Akron Hope began its outreach at Mason CLC in Middlebury in fall 2018, with the intention of building relationships with students, families and teachers to provide resources and support.

One of these supports was a version of the classroom tutoring program Vliet had developed at Helen Arnold CLC.

Outreach at Mason involved these efforts but also included things like community events that provide resources to help encourage family engagement at the school, and the Hope Closet, where students had access to clothing, food and other basic needs.

When Akron Hope became a program of The Well three years ago, it was clear that engagement would need to take place year-round. In becoming The Well’s community engagement coordinator, Vliet knew the importance of offering support in tangible ways.

“We’re not an organization that’s going to come in and do something to you,” she explains. “[Instead], we respond to need and base programming off working with the people who make up the places we serve.” 

This year, the program has had to adapt to a new format. After classes went remote last March, spring semester tutoring at both Helen Arnold and Mason was cut short in the last few months of the 2020 school year.

Vliet says there was a lot of uncertainty last May and June as schools deliberated a return to the classroom. Eventually, when Akron Public Schools decided to continue remote learning into the new school year, it was clear that Akron Hope needed to pivot.

Helen Arnold began its virtual tutoring program last September, utilizing Google Meet to connect teachers, students and volunteers. 

Over a video call, students and tutors spend an hour on Friday mornings practicing reading comprehension skills as they read passages and answer questions together. Students use a software called i-Ready, which allows them to complete online reading assessments as tutors follow along through a screen-sharing feature.

Vliet acknowledges that while in-person tutoring is certainly the preferred method, the virtual experience has offered some new perspectives.

“We truly couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,” she says. “We’ve learned that people are interested in volunteering virtually. The ability to meet people in their homes or workplaces or wherever they are on Friday mornings has opened our eyes to the ways that we can utilize volunteers.”

Berzito adds, “The mentors have been so wonderful and patient, as well as the students. Getting students into a breakout room with their mentors is not always easy, but everyone shows up every single week ready to work and ready to help. And these third graders don’t feel like they’re missing out on their Akron Hope experience because they’re still able to get it, even if it’s not in person.”

In the six years since Akron Hope’s tutoring program began, it has continued to prove its value. At Mason, the program is implemented for fourth grade students rather than third graders, though the school decided to opt-out of the virtual program for the time being. 

The Helen Arnold program now covers two third-grade classrooms, with 99% of students having advanced to fourth grade per Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee. At Mason, fourth grade Individualized Education Program (IEP) student test scores increased by 60% and overall scores increased by 9% within the program’s first year. 

Over her six years at Helen Arnold, Berzito has never had to hold a student back. She says this is a testament to Akron Hope’s impact.

“I hope the students just really understand how many cheerleaders they have in their corner. Not only do they have their mentor, and me, and our principal, but they [also] have 15 or 20 classmates all rooting for them to do well,” she says. “There have been times when tears have been brought to my eyes because I’ll walk around and just hear the conversations the mentors and students have with each other. They truly are on their side and want them to do well.”

Vliet says she wants to see Akron Hope continue to reach students no matter the circumstance. “My hope is that we continue to invest intentionally at both schools. The deeper we invest relationally, the more depth we’ll be given and the more resources we are able to provide.”

When it comes to volunteers, Vliet also says she’d like to see the volunteer base diversify. “We want to have volunteers who look like the students and families we’re serving. Continuing to recruit and engage people of color, getting more male volunteers involved and diversifying in all age levels is important.”

Longer-term, Vliet says she’d like to see cohesion between the tutoring program and The Well’s placemaking initiatives. In the Middlebury neighborhood, and at schools like Mason, high transiency rates mean students are moving frequently and are therefore less likely to build school and community connections. This can correlate to lower academic achievement.

“With The Well’s housing initiative to create and restore homes in the neighborhood, our hope is that as we continue to intentionally invest our time and resources at schools like Mason, we can then get families into stabilized homes and connect them to other community resources,” she says. “As we continue to build relationships, our hope is that we will better be able to serve families and their needs, and bring even more community resources to the schools.” 

To learn more about The Well and Akron Hope, visit thewellakron.com/akronhope or follow @AkronHope on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For volunteer opportunities or more information on programming, contact Jen Vliet at jen@thewellakron.com. 

Abbey Bashor is an Akron native currently caught between the charm of the Midwest and the lure of the big city. She is a freelance writer who enjoys covering community engagement, politics and pop culture. 

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