Upon arriving in Rancho Mirage in 2003 we found there was an enormous education gap between the children who live in the far east Coachella Valley and the rest of the area. We asked many people what was needed to fill that gap. The then Superintendent of Coachella Valley Unified School District said, “Our kids only hear English spoken in the Classroom by their teacher. We need English speaking role models.”
We promised to recruit volunteers, but the fluent, educated potential volunteers lived 30 miles away. When asked if the district would provide buses to bring the volunteer tutors to the schools, he agreed. With the help of our pastor Father Howard Lincoln of Sacred Heart Church we recruited 75 volunteers the first year for Mecca school. As other schools heard about our program they requested volunteers as well. With the cooperation of six different churches we recruited over 700 volunteers to go to 14 different schools in the valley. Our focus is to help those children who are reading below grade level. All the research indicates that if a child is not reading at grade level by third grade they will drop out of high school and not only fail to succeed at work, but oftentimes get in trouble and wind up in prison.
In the last two years we have conducted an analysis with the assistance of the CVUSD to determine whether having volunteer tutors makes a significant difference in the students reading proficiency. At six different schools we measured the reading progress made by kids receiving our tutoring and compared that with the reading progress made by non-tutored children in that school. In every case the kids who received tutoring made twice as much progress as the average student in that school.
Now we are confronted with finding a way to keep our tutoring program active when not only are the volunteers not allowed on campus, but the kids are learning by computer at a distance. Our board recognizes that the children who have already missed six months of full classroom learning, and need tutoring assistance more than ever.
After months of working with the CVUSD we have created a program that will permit our volunteers to learn how to tutor using their computers or other electronic devices such as an IPad. Four churches are making space available four mornings a week in a room large enough to accommodate 10 volunteers at a time, and a trainer , using 6 foot social distancing. (We have 5 specialists who will be conducting the training.) Everyone will wear masks except the trainer who will wear a clear plastic shield when addressing the group and a mask when sitting near them.
We have also rented a 860 sq. ft. office from the H. N. and Frances C Berger Foundation on Cook Street in Palm Desert. That space will be available from 8:30 to 4 pm four days a week. We will invite our volunteers to register, and agree to a background check, when approved, then they can make a reservation at their assigned Resource Center and come to an information session, followed by as many training sessions it takes to have them feel proficient in using their electronic device to communicate with the students. Our specialists will load the appropriate software onto their device. We will also have extra devices in case internet connectivity is an issue at their home, they can come into the Resource Center for their regular weekly sessions with their kids.
The school districts security code does not permit anyone other than their teacher and parent to have access to their on line learning. Therefore, after a volunteer is registered and approved they are assigned to a specific school and teacher, the teacher will invite the volunteer via Zoom into the class and put the volunteer and one or two students at a time into an electronic breakout room. The teacher will email exact copies of the material the student has and volunteer and student will work on pronunciation and comprehension. Since the vast majority of our volunteers are educated, retired individuals, they are fluent In English but have qualms about learning new computer skills.
We have found a number of our volunteers do not plan to be in the desert this year so we will also have a REMOTE training specialist who will provide videos and work with them to load the necessary software and conduct their tutoring from wherever they are. This specialist will also provide on going telephone support for them.
Operating in a safe and effective way while complying with all the safeguards necessary to prevent the spread of COVID 19 is an enormous challenge. Each of our training sites will be sanitized after each session and our trainer specialists will practice and enforce social distancing.
This is not ideal; it cannot replace being in the same room with the children,, but it is the best we can do and our commitment still stands: to make certain that every child we help has the opportunity to develop to their maximum potential, and become productive citizens, fully enjoying the American way of life.
As Winston Churchill has been quoted as saying “Never, Never, Never give up”. If we don’t the children won’t.