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Education

As Colorado struggles to balance school with coronavirus, two kids see an opportunity to help

A brother and sister in Douglas County launched a virtual tutoring business, with a pro bono heart, to help fill the gaps left by coronavirus-era instruction

Amelia and Berkley Zawadowski, ages 13 and 11, sit in a park across from their neighborhood elementary school near Parker. The high-achieving siblings have launched a tutoring service for kids pre-K through 3rd grade they hope can help families through the educational hurdles posed by the coronavirus. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

While school boards across Colorado have wrestled with the complex question of how to welcome back students with measures that would both ensure safety while also delivering quality education, a pair of siblings in Douglas County wondered if maybe even kids could add some talents to the toolbox.

In a time of no great back-to-school options, 13-year-old Amelia Zawadowski and her brother  Berkley, 11, recognized opportunity in the midst of chaos. The two academic high achievers, casting about for not just a late-summer job but a chance to help their community, decided to step into the midst of the COVID-19 education conundrum.

“The summer was ending,” said Amelia, “and we decided this school year could be tough on kids and they might need some help. We’re willing to help them as much as we can.”

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“We were thinking of ways to get that social interaction that they normally would and also boost their academic learning,” added Berkley. “We thought this could be a great opportunity.”

Many parents across Colorado have explored solutions like hiring credentialed teachers for more closely controlled in-person learning in small “pods.” The Parker-area siblings decided to leverage their youth with a more affordable option, possibly including pro bono services to those in need.  

They created Ready to Succeed, a fledgling business with altruistic underpinnings, that offers their skills as part of the online solution to a distance-learning model that many feel falls short of fulltime in-person school attendance. Amelia designed a web site explaining what she and Berkley can offer students from pre-kindergarten through third grade, and together they’ve made a case for their skills as tutors on everything from simple colors for the pre-K kids to core subjects to Spanish.

“It came from the heart,” their father, Greg Zawadowski, said, “although they’re also looking to earn money for their first car.”

Their tutoring would take place entirely via video chats — so they’re not offering a fix to child care issues — but they maintain that tutoring one-on-one, on something closer to a peer-to-peer basis, can fill some of the educational gaps left by schools’ necessarily rapid pivot to a larger-scale online model.

And in Douglas County, where students currently have the option of online-only instruction or a hybrid approach that would put them in a classroom two days a week, Amelia and Berkley see plenty of gaps.

“This leaves a lot of time for students to be at home without an educator,” Berkley said, chatting in the park across the street from his elementary school, where teachers were preparing for the next school year. “Most of the time, kids have a hard time learning from their parents. We thought that learning from kids would be better, and they would listen more. 

MORE: These Colorado school districts are welcoming students back for in-person learning this fall. Here’s why they feel it’s safe.

“Also,” he added, “we understand that working parents don’t have much time to teach their children. So that’s where we come in.”

Their plan is to spend time with students in either one-hour or half-hour sessions, at an as-yet unspecified rate that remains negotiable. Students can bring their own work from school or the siblings can use grade-level material they and their mom, who has done at-home daycare for kids from age 1-9, have accumulated. 

They just announced their availability on the Nextdoor app a few days ago and are working on some flyers while they wait to land their first client. But they’re also looking at expanding their announcement beyond Nextdoor as parents come to grips with just how their new arrangements will work for their families. 

“It might have been a little early,” Greg said of his kids’ timing, “because I don’t think people have fully realized what they’re in for. If they repost it (online) and say hey, you know we’re available just to help out, I think that there might be some more interest and then the word would hopefully spread that way.

“They’re always looking for a challenge and you know there’s a lot to creating your own business, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. And so, they’re learning as they go, for sure.”

For a couple of kids just hitting the ‘tween years, they present more than respectable academic credentials.

Amelia, who’s going into eighth grade at Sierra Middle School in Parker, has taken advanced classes most of her school career and hones her academic skills during the summer on IXL, an online site. Berkley, who’ll start sixth grade in Pine Grove Elementary’s gifted and talented program, already has taken the PSAT test designed for eighth- and ninth-graders, finishing in the top 25% of students over seven states. 

Not satisfied, he took it again and awaits those results. Later this school year he plans to take the SAT, “to see where I’m at, college-ready or not.”

They both play piano, though in truth, they’re still learning to appreciate how that pursuit will benefit them in the future.

Amelia and Berkley Zawadowski at a park near their house in the Parker area. The siblings hope to use their help as tutors for kids in third grade and under to fill some of the gaps in coronavirus-era schooling. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Helping in the community is something that has been taught by example. Greg, who works as a manager for a financial services company, has stressed volunteer work, in part through his own participation in Habitat for Humanity and Junior Achievement, a program that introduces financial literacy that he has facilitated at schools throughout the district. Sometimes, he uses Amelia and Berkley as teaching assistants.

At Sierra, Amelia has volunteered with a service organization that has done projects such as providing personal hygiene items for people experiencing homelessness. Berkley does service projects through the Boy Scouts.

So the idea that the two kids would hatch a plan that combined offering their skills for hire while also filling what promises to be a significant need came as little surprise to their father.

“As school started to roll around, they thought about an idea where they can help out the community,” Greg said. “It’s kind of like a combination that just came together for them where I think they see the need, and the benefit that a community could get from something like what they’re offering.” 

Read more education stories from The Colorado Sun.

Both Berkley and Amelia remain wary of the coronavirus — they’ve postponed their return to youth soccer over those concerns — and have chosen a full online model to begin the school year.

Last spring’s experience of having to learn remotely when schools shut down because of the coronavirus prepared them to replicate or even improve on their skills.

“When we started to do things online, we got the hang of it and know the routine and what to do,” Amelia said. “Parents can tell us any specific needs they want their child to be learning. After that, we’ll go on a video call and start tutoring.”

They also have plenty of materials from their own experience to use, and a desire to make the process fun for the student. Although they’re not skilled in the way adult instructors are, they’re used to having classmates turn to them for help.

“We get that a lot,” Amelia said. “Our friends will text us and ask for help, and we’ll help them — but not give answers, because that makes them better learners. We try to teach them along the way and help them figure it out.”

They’ve got one other leg up when it comes to communication with younger kids. From an even younger age, they helped their mom with her daycare business. “We got to be with the smaller kids and see how they learn and look at their habits,” Amelia said. “I think we’d be ready for that.”

Also, Greg points out that any tutoring would take place under parental supervision — and both he and Jenifer have undergone standard background checks in order to have the home business in which he could take over for her on occasions when she had to miss time.

The trust issue looms large with kids entering an online venture. That’s one reason that, while school boundaries are irrelevant and the technology would let Amelia and Berkley tutor without regard to geography, they hope to start local, in a familiar community.

“It’d be great to expand,” Greg said, “but it’s really an online world and you really want that security knowing that somebody on the other end is trustworthy.” 

There’s no telling how long the restrictive school measures will last, or whether, if things go badly, everyone will retreat to an online-only format. But the siblings say they’re on board with helping families of any economic circumstance, for as long as there’s a need.

“We’re willing to do it as long as people would like to be signing up,” Berkley said. “We’ll help as long as we can. And hopefully that doesn’t interfere with our online learning — but I’m sure we’ll be able to handle both.”

Greg figures that whether the effort works as a business or takes on more of a philanthropic role — or even if it never gains traction — the experience will be worth the effort.

“It’s not just about how much you get paid,” he said. “I think that when you get those people that come back and say, ‘Hey thanks for helping out, you made a difference’ — that’s better than any paycheck.”

Rising Sun