students sitting at a table with laptops and headphones receive virtual tutoring
Students at Korematsu Discovery Academy participate in virtual literacy tutoring through the Ignite! Reading program. Credit: Ashley McBride

Tabetha Young’s third-grader graduated from kindergarten in spring 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools in Oakland and across the country. When he returned to in-person school in fall 2021 as a second-grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, his confidence in the classroom had waned and his academic skills had suffered. He was soon identified for the Children Rising program, where he met with a tutor at least once a week to work on reading and math. 

“It gave my son confidence, motivation, and determination,” Young said. “He’s determined to go to school and do his homework. He’s not afraid to try anymore, and I think that’s what COVID really brought on—a lot of fear and it dragged down his self-confidence.”

Children Rising is one of multiple organizations that partners with Oakland schools to provide intensive tutoring to elementary school students in reading and math. The group, founded in 2001, recruits volunteers and trains them to work with students in classrooms a few times a week. 

“High-dosage” tutoring, or close instruction that happens during the school day at least three times a week, is emerging as an effective way to increase student academic achievement. In Oakland, organizations that provide tutoring have existed for years. But now,  with learning loss and increased teacher shortages during the pandemic, their work has taken on new urgency. 

“In the schools where Children Rising currently serves, 75% of second-graders are two or more grade levels behind,” said Eric Steckel, the group’s communications manager. “Two years ago that was 60%. So COVID has taken a bad statistic and made it a lot worse.”

Oakland Unified School District has identified early literacy as a high priority over the next three years, and has adopted a curriculum based in the science of reading, as well as established the Early Literacy Kings program, which trains men of color to work in classrooms as literacy tutors. Schools are increasingly also turning to outside organizations to provide intensive academic support to their students, especially in younger grades. Results from the Smarter Balanced assessments, which are the standardized tests that California students take, show that Oakland schools have a long way to go: Only about 36% of third-grade students met or exceeded grade-level standards in reading during the 2021-2022 school year.  

To meet the demand, Children Rising is trying to ramp up the number of tutoring sessions it provides to students. The challenge is finding tutors. 

“Pre-COVID, we were tutoring approximately 300 children in an academic year,” Steckel said. “If we could get 250 to 300 tutors to tutor two children per week, we’d be able to support 500 kids.”

Before COVID, said Steckel, students who received at least 20 tutoring sessions from Children Rising during the school year would routinely advance two grade levels in their reading skills. Now, the group is aiming for 40 to 50 sessions per student in a school year.

Children Rising currently works with 13 OUSD schools that are designated Title I, which are schools with high numbers of low-income students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To be a tutor, volunteers must go through a background check and fingerprinting, have current tuberculosis shots, and receive training on the curriculum.

The Oakland Reach, a local parent advocacy group, launched its virtual family hub during the pandemic to support students and families navigating distance learning. The Oakland Reach has turned to parents and other family members of students to serve as instructors for small-group tutoring. The group is partnering with Fluent Seeds, an organization that trains educators in literacy, math, and social-emotional learning, to prepare the “literacy liberators” who will work with students beginning in January. The partnership is aiming to reach 5,500 kindergarten to second-grade students across OUSD.

According to The Oakland REACH, students participating in their program during the pandemic raised their academic achievement by two to three grade levels. 

“A lot of people say that Black and brown families, and low-income families, don’t care about their kids. They oftentimes feel very powerless to do something substantive around their kids’ education,” Lakisha Young, the executive director of The Oakland REACH, said during a discussion about tutoring. “The liberator model is all about upscaling the community to become literacy and math tutors.”

Ignite! Reading is another organization providing Oakland students with literacy support and getting results. The organization, which launched in 2021, currently partners with KIPP Bridge Academy in West Oakland, Learning without Limits, an elementary charter school in Fruitvale, and Korematsu Discovery Academy, an elementary school in East Oakland. 

Ignite! Reading provides virtual tutoring to students during the school day in 15-minute sessions every day. Jessica Reid Sliwerski, the founder of Ignite! Reading, sees the program as a “safety net” that can help students who have struggled with previous reading instruction.

“If the system isn’t ready to serve all children, then let’s bring in a safety net that is going to make sure that they learn what they need to learn while we give the system time to catch up,” she said. 

By providing virtual tutors, Ignite! Reading also helps relieve some of the pressure on schools to find adequate staff for one-on-one instruction. 

“It’s very, very difficult to get fully staffed with tutors. You have to find the tutors, you have to train the tutors, you have to keep the tutors, you have to direct and manage the tutors, which is a job in and of itself,” said Kareem Weaver, the co-founder of FULCRUM, an organization that advocates for science-based reading instruction. “We’re trying to get our kids to read, so what can we do to remove any stumbling blocks to that happening?”

On a recent Wednesday at Korematsu Discovery Academy, a group of about two dozen first- to fifth-graders logged onto computers for their Ignite! Reading sessions with virtual tutors. Some use personal whiteboards to spell out words, while others listen and repeat new words that their tutors are introducing to them. 

Principal Amie Lamontagne Akuma said the Ignite! Reading program was appealing to her because the school doesn’t have the staffing capacity to do one-on-one literacy intervention with students. Korematsu Discovery Academy is also set to be closed at the end of this school year, as part of OUSD’s closure plan. That motivated Akuma even more to provide literacy support for her students. 

“No matter what happens next, I want them to have the best opportunities when they get to their new schools,” she said. 

During the 2021-2022 school year, students who participated in the Ignite! Reading program made more than two weeks of progress for every week they participated in the program, and there were no achievement gaps between student groups, said Sliwerski. 

“This is social justice: Getting kids to be able to read so they and their families can determine their path,” Weaver said. “This is a civil rights issue.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.