Murray program shifts gears to distance tutoring

By Sarah CR Clark

When Elizabeth Lee begins her “Pilot One on One” volunteer tutoring shift, she now reaches for her phone rather than walking into Murray Middle School.

“Prior to the stay at home order, I met with one or two students weekly in Ms. Thrasher’s classroom,” Lee said. “Now, I call them, and we do homework over the phone. Thankfully most of them pick up!”

Retired teacher Rita LaDoux tutors one student on the phone, three times a week for an hour each time. “We talk on the phone, but I have their assignments and worksheets up on my computer,” she said. “The math book is online and other materials can be accessed online or through email.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, distance tutoring is the new normal for some 62 adults who have been helping 48 students a week at Murray Middle School.

Both Lee and LaDoux say tutoring over the phone is challenging.

“It’s hard for students to have the motivation to do schoolwork in their homes,” Lee said, “especially when they don’t understand the material and/or have to take care of siblings during their days.”

Still, Murray’s tutors are highly committed volunteers. “I believe the kids do better and work harder when they know someone cares about them,” Lee said.

Murray Middle School Principal Jamin McKenzie acknowledged that while teachers have been successfully learning new tools and strategies, there are extreme challenges still present to students.

“Access to equipment, family responsibilities, learning disabilities, language barriers or any other number of external variables are serious factors that are impacting the educational experience of many of our students,” McKenzie explained.

Cindy Thrasher, coordinator of Murray’s 13-year-old “ Pilot One on One” tutoring program, has witnessed her students confront these extreme challenges, such as: students for whom English isn’t a first language and are puzzled by online platforms; parents who are overloaded and sometimes unresponsive; technology in some households that is broken or insufficient; and Internet hotspots, especially in apartments, that can become overwhelmed.

Thrasher mentioned one student who tries “his best to work with the tutor but has younger siblings to care for simultaneously so it is difficult to concentrate.”

McKenzie noted, “One of the most effective ways we have to combat these challenges is working to make as many connections as possible with students and providing them a layer of individualized support. The Pilot One on One (tutoring)program is one of those layers of support.”

Jekia, one Murray student, described her tutor as being “very kind and helpful. She isn’t one of those tutors that just works with you. When she or I call, she always checks in before we start working, which is nice.”

Recently, Jekia and her tutor worked on a math assignment, using coronavirus statistics to calculate exponents. “We always have good conversations and there hasn’t been a day yet when we haven’t laughed,” Jekia said.

Michelle Trueblood, who connected to Murray’s volunteer tutoring program through her employment at Sunrise Banks, said her phone conversations have had a positive impact on the student she helps.

“Our interactions have been really amazing,” Trueblood said. “We have grown more comfortable with each other. We are able to work longer on any given subject if needed and time allows. It has been a great experience.”

The support that Murray’s One-on-One tutoring program offers seems to be working. Despite the challenges of distance learning, “one by one we have been able to help 90 percent of our [tutored] students get engaged with their homework by working with the tutors,” Thrasher said. Historically, 85 percent of students’ grades in the program improve from Ds and Fs to Cs, Bs and As by the third quarter.

Amelia Reed, a University of St. Thomas sophomore, is among Murray’s faithful tutors.

“I think it is especially important right now, as we are all quarantined, to make sure students stay engaged in their learning,” she said. “I hope by receiving phone calls from tutors at this time, students know that the support of their tutors and teachers is constant, even if everything else feels uncertain.”

Joe Spoerri, a retired commercial banker, has volunteered for two years as a Murray tutor. Normally his weekly schedule is full of volunteer commitments. Currently, however, the Murray tutoring program is the only volunteering activity he’s been able to continue.

“Despite the challenges, I am impressed by the effort students are making to keep up with their schoolwork,” he said. “My only regret is that we don’t have more time to work with the students.”

Sarah CR Clark is a resident of St. Anthony Park and a regular contributor to the Bugle.

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