In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing greater academic, social, and emotional challenges than ever before. Schools can’t address these needs on their own — and families need options. As families, caregivers, and schools look for ways to assemble a range of education options to meet students’ needs, Bellwether sat down with Filling the Gap cohort participants to discuss how assembling a more flexible educational ecosystem can be responsive to students’ needs. Stay tuned for more Q&As in this Bellwether blog series as March continues. To learn more about Filling the Gap and to read more in this Bellwether blog series, click here. Posts have been edited for clarity and content.
I sat down with Gina Burd, director of partnerships at CityTutor DC, a Filling the Gap cohort participant. CityTutor DC, an initiative of CityBridge Education, coordinates a coalition focused on expanding high-impact tutoring (HIT) across Washington, D.C. schools. We talked about the value of HIT, the value of communication and alignment within the coalition, and more.
Paul Beach (PB): How did your career path lead you to your current role at CityTutor DC?
Gina Burd (GB): I was a high school English teacher for 12 years in Massachusetts working primarily with English learner student populations before I relocated to D.C. I’ve been in D.C. for about six years, and first worked at a Community Based Organization in Anacostia before taking on my current role at CityTutor DC (the first non-direct service role in my career).
CityTutor DC is an initiative from CityBridge Education, a nonprofit incubating the people, ideas, and conversations needed for equity-driven innovation in D.C.’s public schools. CityTutor DC is one of its incubated ideas. Our team expands access to HIT across all eight wards in D.C. through coalition-building and as connectors in the ed sector here. We work every day to link local educational agencies (LEAs) with different local university partners and tutoring providers to better meet students’ needs.
PB: You mentioned that the D.C. education sector is vibrant, what’s the current landscape like right now in the city? How have families, students, and schools weathered the COVID-19 pandemic?
GB: Understanding the ed sector and HIT landscape in D.C. was a wild journey for me. It’s an incredibly decentralized city with 69 separate LEAs (DC Public Schools serve half the kids citywide, and 68 separate charter school systems — some single-site, some with multiple campuses — serve the rest). It’s a complex system to navigate.
Families, caregivers, students, and schools continue to weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in D.C. we’ve been monitoring the trend in National Assessment of Educational Progress test score data released in October 2022 that shows the lowest grade 8 math scores in decades. From firsthand experience, I understand and empathize with how difficult it’s been on families during the height of the pandemic. I worked with a lot of families directly and can attest to how challenging it is to get a first grader logged into their classes each day. To say it’s been a difficult few years is an understatement!
At CityTutor DC, our team was formed as a response to try and do some recovery in learning with students, and acceleration as well.
PB: Can you tell us what HIT is and about the goals of the Office of the State Superintendent for Education’s (OSSE) $41 million investment in HIT?
GB: HIT is an evidence-based strategy to accelerate student learning. Dr. Christina Grant is OSSE’s superintendent, and she’s spent time in the city talking about how tutoring shouldn’t just be for the elite few with means. She’s had a real focus on bringing HIT to everyone and expanding equitable access citywide, and it’s made a huge impact in our work and among the students we serve.
Our work focuses on the key factors of HIT standards, data, high-quality curriculum, school alignment, partnerships, and dosage of tutoring. For example, evidence shows that 90 minutes of small-group tutoring (four students or less) meeting multiple times each week over a 10-week period accelerates student learning. CityTutor DC’s whole approach anchors to this key metric.
CityTutor DC is the strategic HIT implementation partner to OSSE, as the state educational agency (SEA). We provide OSSE with an evaluation rubric so it can provide HIT standards uniformly to all schools citywide. We do in-person tutoring site visits to observe and provide feedback around logistics, scheduling, and curriculum. Our team is full of former educators or education professionals in general, and we provide communities of practice for providers and schools to ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page to drive HIT forward in D.C.
CityTutor DC’s goal is to get as many students as possible into HIT; we recently reached a major milestone of 10,000 students served with tutoring through our programming. I’m so proud of our team, community partners, and most importantly the students we serve every day.
PB: How do you build awareness with parents and caregivers about HIT?
GB: We do something called “design sprints” with teams on logistical support to build HIT into the school day. We’re also working on deepening family engagement in our model because we know that when parents and caregivers buy into HIT, student buy-in is often higher. We held two focus groups with about 25 parents and caregivers (virtual and in-person), which led to a frank discussion about HIT. When we asked if many participants had heard of HIT, we heard a resounding “no.” But once we spoke with them about HIT standards, where tutoring is available in D.C., and provided guidance on how they can advocate for their child to receive HIT, our messages resonated. We launched a caregiver-centric website a few weeks ago with resources for families. We have more work to do but have made promising strides.
PB: Why are families and students interested in HIT? What types of messages seem to resonate with families when you describe the opportunity that HIT provides?
GB: Opportunity is the key word. We saw a lot of schools present the concept of tutoring through the lens of “your kid needs tutoring because they need extra help.” And families are so overwhelmed by devastating test scores in the news amid the pandemic. It’s a lot. CityTutor DC focuses on the opportunity frame with HIT as a means of supporting children to accelerate their skills via middle school math or elementary early literacy.
Families and caregivers are also excited about building relationships. A key HIT standard is that the tutor builds strong relationships with the kids. Having a consistent tutor meeting with a child for those 90 minutes each week in a small-group setting creates a natural foundation for support, building students’ skills and confidence, and deepening their relationships with a trusted adult. Parents and caregivers love seeing that dynamic bloom, especially given the interpersonal social skills that COVID-19 disrupted, and we’ve recently seen data from a third party that supports our theory of change. Relationships are strong and tutoring improves the overall well-being of our students, especially those experiencing housing or food insecurity and other vulnerabilities.
PB: Where is HIT having an impact today? Can you share a story or anecdote?
GB: A few come to mind. Our team is making strides with university and college partnerships. The George Washington University built a math curriculum and is training tutors interested in education and then embedding them in D.C. schools to provide HIT. It’s very exciting to see and could be a sustainable model beyond COVID recovery.
Another surprising impact story is from an unlikely place. I did a recent site visit to a charter school with an alternative program available for kids who aren’t on a “traditional” K-12 path, including students over the age of 18 attending programs built around their lives. I saw amazing HIT happening there recently, and it’s encouraging to see teenagers who typically might not have a ton of enthusiasm for school laughing and engaging in tutoring sessions. Having a trusted adult tutor excited about their academic growth is infectious.
PB: Filling the Gap cohort participants have talked a lot about the challenge of coordinating a large and diverse coalition of organizations. What are some strategies you use to deal with that issue?
GB: A key message we push out to providers is that you have to work together and learn from each other. HIT is most successful if schools are aligned with what tutoring organizations provide and vice versa. In D.C., there are an array of logistical challenges with so many separate LEAs, so it can feel disconnected if we don’t build as many communications structures as possible. There’s a tension between the twin challenge of site-by-site norms and a uniform districtwide message of what HIT providers can do, too.
PB: What’s one piece of advice you’d give an organization that’s working to expand access to HIT in D.C. or in a different city or state?
GB: Communicating across all stakeholders is critical. Our D.C. coalition model is what’s moving the needle here; we’ve built strong SEA and LEA relationships as well as solid partnerships with universities, colleges, and nonprofits. We over-communicate, share best practices, and unpack common challenges. And we focus on building up-front communications among tutoring providers, teachers, and school leadership before HIT even enters a school building.
For example, in our communities of practice, we’re mindful of grouping similar HIT providers in similar school settings so that they can easily share promising practices despite D.C.’s decentralized K-12 ed sector. Practitioners can read more about the principles behind our coalition model in our recent strategy paper, Establishing Roots: Implementing Citywide High-Impact Tutoring in DC.
PB: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention or put a finer point on?
GB: Although CityTutor DC is focused on one urban area, we’ve been able to partner with other cities to build inroads elsewhere for the sharing of best practices, field observation, and all the kinds of things that lead to future improvement of our own approach. We recently partnered with New York City’s Department of Education, which sent a team to D.C. to observe a CityTutor DC HIT design sprint and adapted elements of our approach to implement in their city. This information sharing goes both ways and feedback from peers is helpful. So far, we’ve been proud that D.C.’s HIT ecosystem and coalition approach are key differentiators for success.