Interview: Around Cloud Tutors
I spoke with Amelia Barkley, the Program Manager of Around Cloud Tutors, about their newly-launched fully virtual free tutoring program. It is sponsored by the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation.
-Rose Maney, Youth Virtual Tutoring Initiative Literacy Leader
If you'd like to start by telling me a little bit about how your program addresses the academic and social-emotional needs that the pandemic has created.
Sure! Our platform actually launched in early January, so we have always been COVID-based, or always existed in the COVID world.
We are completely virtual, and we're a free tutoring service. Our tutors sign up through our online form and they're trained online by me. There is a background check that they go through, and then they have a process in which they connect with students.
How do you coordinate tutoring with parents and tutors?
Our website is where students or parents of students go to sign their child up for a wide variety of subjects we have available. They fill out a simple intake form with their name, email and what they need help with.
Then the tutor receives that intake form, and they send the student a zoom link; we do all of our tutoring via Zoom. Students connect at their scheduled time and about their specific subject.
How do you find your volunteers?
The first and biggest group is our college students. A lot of our college students are from those post-secondary colleges or universities, and I would say about half of them are getting their education degree.
The other part of that student demographic is getting a degree in math and willing to help teach. Some of that math group is often the higher-level students, up through 12th grade.
We have a group of retired teachers and volunteers who work with us, and we partner with AmeriCorps Seniors.
We also have a few working professionals, who after their usual work day will do some of that post-secondary advising that we offer at our site. A few of them are journalists who want to help students with their writing after their work day or even a few half hours during their lunch break.
What percentage of your tutoring would you say is enrichment and what percentage would you say is homework help?
I would say the majority is homework help. When students do the intake form they let us know that they either need help with pronunciation if they're reading words, or help with a specific concept in their sixth grade math class or something like that.
Students who want to book sessions likely have one parent who books a session three or five times a week for their child to do English comprehension help, so they've got their head start two weeks in advance. Some students, we see them booking the same day and requesting homework help. So we see a wide range of what help is needed.
What do you do for safety? Do you do background checks on the volunteers? Do you utilize breakout rooms?
Yes, we do background checks on all of our volunteers. Another safety piece is that we chose Zoom as our virtual platform because the tutors record their tutoring sessions with the student, and that recording is sent to me. I will look over them to make sure everything is okay, just have that third set of eyes in there.
We also encourage the students to have a parent or guardian or friend in the same room, if possible. We don't ask the parents to necessarily have to be there, but we do encourage that some type of person be in the room as well.
Do you have the parents sign any waivers or anything like that?
No, we do not. People kind of come as they please. That's the one thing that we decided to do based on access, that we didn't want to have the barrier of paperwork to go through. We wanted to make sure that this was available for all to just sign their student up and use the platform without having to go through some extra step.
Do you think you're going to continue with virtual learning after COVID is over and schools are back in person?
So in our central Minnesota region, we have most of our students back in the classroom. But we do have students who have chosen to be virtual all year and so are still virtual [as of March 2021], and we also have a Distance Learning Academy at one of our school districts. But yes, we likely will as we move forward. I think the thing that we've seen is that because of the pandemic, school districts were forced to find options for that one-to-one device ratio for students if they didn't already have that.
Now that students understand how to learn in a virtual setting and how to open up their Zoom meeting and connect with a tutor or a teacher online, we are finding that has been super helpful for our platform, because the students are now confident in that technology piece. They're able to not have that be a worry, and so when they connect with the tutor, they can focus on their homework.
We definitely see this as an opportunity to continue our tutoring options, and just for kids to know that if they can't get that extra school help or extra after school help for any reason, or if a teacher is busy during the day, and they're not understanding something, they have an option after school to connect with a tutor on something they're struggling with or wanting to keep up with.
Do you have a lot of the same kids coming back, or is it on more of a rolling basis?
Yeah, a little bit. Both. We have probably five to 10 students who we see booking multiple times a week or at least weekly, and then we have new students rolling in on a weekly basis as well. Students can book the same day or book a couple of weeks out. We do have a nice balance of both.
Have you found any interesting techniques to keep students engaged?
We do offer some teaching resources and platforms for our tutors to use to make math a little bit more fun, you know, playing a game while you're learning math. With reading, they’re able to share the screen and read a book together.
Some of our tutors who are retired teachers are connecting with the younger students practicing their reading and using different virtual backgrounds to point out themes or characters or something in the book. We're finding that kids are engaging with some of those visually appealing images that go with what they're reading that's getting them excited to dive into their book a little bit more.
When you have teachers working with kids who are learning to read, how do you handle the resources they use, like an online library, or do they each have a copy of the same physical book?
We'll have a student share their screen if they have a digital book. Some of our students have a physical book, and they'll show a word to the camera if they don't know how to pronounce it. Otherwise, if the tutors do know ahead of time because parents have communicated which book they would like to read, a few of our tutors have even gone to the library to get the same one as the student if the digital option is not available.
When you stick with the same students, do you have any way of tracking their progress, such as testing or checking in with grades?
We only check in with grades, if that's something that the teacher or the parent would like the tutor to help them track. We are not a curriculum-based program; we serve the student as that student and not as a student part of a certain district. So we don't do any specific tracking at all.
We just put out a survey to our parents to ask if their students are improving and overall we have gotten a general response that yes, this has helped my child.
Are there any other nonprofits, groups or organizations that you partner with?
Yes, we are hugely community collaborative. United Way is one of our biggest partners. They use their networks and programs to do outreach. We also partner with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota. The other partners we have are our local school districts: we are partnered with the St. Cloud, Sartell and Sauk Rapids school districts at the moment, working with their curriculum directors or superintendents to get the word out.
How many students are you serving right now?
I can tell you that over the past two and a half months, we've served 248 as in bookings, so 48 students book our sessions. Our website doesn't allow us to easily find the unique number of students we've booked. At least in a general sense, we've served that many students, but some of them are duplicates.
Do you use Google Meet, Zoom or a different platform?
We use Zoom.
Have you seen any downturn in sessions booked as the pandemic continues? I know that some organizations are facing screen burnout.
You know, it's a hard thing, just because we are still new. We've seen a little bit of a downturn, although not anything major. So we are speculating that it is screen burnout, but again, we are still a little too new to know if this is just a normal downtick in how semesters are or if we're just not reaching enough people yet.
Do you see yourself continuing doing virtual education after the pandemic?
We're planning to continue our virtual learning services this summer (2021) and into the next full year (2021-2022).