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Harrison School District in Colorado Springs last summer made videos explaining what to expect when their students returned to in-person learning. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many Colorado students will end the school year academically behind, set back by pandemic-related disruptions. Lawmakers are hoping to help them regain ground with state-supported intensive tutoring.

A bipartisan bill, House Bill 1234, proposes creating a program that would grant funds to districts to develop “high-impact” tutoring programs to help catch students up on their coursework. Behind the concept of high-impact tutoring is good, old-fashioned relationship building — something many students have lacked for more than a year now as they’ve communicated with their teachers and peers primarily through Zoom or other online platforms.

But the number of students who could benefit from programming is up in the air as the full picture of funding to support it remains in question. So far, lawmakers behind the bill have committed at least $5 million from an $800 million state coronavirus stimulus package. The program would end in five years.

But state Rep. Kerry Tipper, a Democrat from Lakewood and prime sponsor of the bill, fears that’s far from adequate and is hoping the Colorado Department of Education, which has helped begin outlining how the grant program would work, will invest additional money.

“It is nowhere near the need across the state, and my great hope is that CDE, with the millions and millions of dollars that they’re going to be receiving from the federal government, will supplement our … measly effort,” Tipper said during a House Education Committee hearing on Thursday.

It’s not exactly clear how many students could be covered by the $5 million dollars in state funds, with several variables in the air. Tipper said estimates suggest that high-impact tutoring can cost as much as $3,000 per student while on the lower end, it can cost a few hundred dollars per student.

Reyna Najera works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school is one of 55 Discovery Link sites that was set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning during the pandemic. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

State Rep. Tony Exum Sr., a Colorado Springs Democrat, initiated the idea of CDE matching the state’s investment with federal stimulus dollars.

But the State Board of Education must authorize CDE to tap the 10% of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars the department has discretion to spend on issues related to COVID-19, department spokesman Jeremy Meyer said. However, individual districts could use their portion of ESSER funds to help cover high-impact tutoring without waiting for CDE approval, he said.

The bill passed unanimously in the House Education Committee on Thursday and next heads to appropriations.

“Let the science speak for itself”

Tutoring is part of a growing list of approaches schools and districts are exploring to help students who have struggled during the pandemic. Districts have already begun planning for a more engaging summer for students — what some refer to as a “recovery summer” — that could include summer camps with an academic component, for example.

Other tutoring initiatives have also been launched in Colorado, with the Colorado Education Initiative recently partnering with online platform, where students in grades 6-12 can access free, small-group tutoring.

The concept of high-impact tutoring is distinct in that it focuses as much on relationships as it does on accelerating student achievement. Also known as “high-dosage tutoring,” students meet with the same tutor at least three times a week during the school day, following a curriculum guided by trained tutors who can be teachers, paraprofessional, community providers or retired teachers, among others. Students stick with the same tutor during the school year in groups of four students at most. Their progress is continuously monitored, said Prateek Dutta, Colorado policy director for Democrats for Education Reform. The organization is one of several education groups supporting the bill — alongside Ready Colorado, the Colorado Education Association, Transform Education Now and Colorado Succeeds, among others.

High-impact tutoring supplements courses, rather than replacing them, and in some cases, students earn course credit for attending regular tutoring, said Antonio Gutierrez, co-founder of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Saga Education. The nonprofit focuses on using high-impact tutoring to eliminating educational inequities, with tutors currently in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and Broward County, Florida.

The concept of high-impact tutoring dates back to 2004 and to a Boston charter school, Match Education. Gutierrez, who testified on Thursday, graduated from the school and benefitted from the same kind of tutoring. The son of a single mother of three children growing up in a low-income part of Boston, he recalls how much his own tutor helped him gain confidence and turn an academic corner.

Gutierrez noted how students who come from under resourced communities don’t necessarily have a sense of belonging in school, and having an adult in their life who can show them their potential and guide them makes a big difference — especially as they navigate all kinds of trauma from the pandemic, he said. 

Although Saga Education primarily targets math to set freshmen up for a successful path to graduation, the organization has seen ripple effects of high-impact tutoring across subject areas. 

Emily Love helps her 7-year-old son Foster, a first grader at Pioneer Elementary School in Lafayette, with his work on March 31, 2020, the first day all students in the Boulder Valley School District migrated to online learning during the coronavirus shut down. His older brother, Miles, 12, is working in a Google chat room on a physical science problem with one of his 6th grade classmates from Manhattan Middle School in Boulder. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Studies at the University of Chicago’s Education Lab have shown that students can gain two-and-a-half years of math growth in one year. Those studies have also indicated that high-impact tutoring reduces failure rates in math by 63% and reduces failure rates in non-math classes by 26%.

“Let the science speak for itself,” Gutierrez said.

He sees Colorado potentially serving as a model for other states.

Gayle Bell, director of curriculum instruction and intervention at DSST: College View High School in southwest Denver, specializes in finding ways to close gaps in learning for students most in need of support.

“We know from research that high-frequency, small-group tutoring targeting specific skill gaps is one of the most effective strategies to close gaps in academic outcomes,” Bell told lawmakers on Thursday. “And we know that our students are ending this school year with significant gaps.”

Her school understood the need for small-group tutoring in the fall and implemented weekly tutoring during the school day.

“We saw immediate positive impacts of this,” Bell said. “However, the sheer hours needed far outstrips our current capacity.”

Bell noted that on a recent diagnostic reading assessment for freshmen in her school, 55% of the students scored two or more grade levels behind in at least one of three critical reading skill areas. To provide high-dosage tutoring for those students needing help would require the equivalent of a full-time teaching load.

“The grants made possible by this bill would allow schools like ours to expand and more effectively implement the tutoring that both research and our daily classroom experience shows that our students need,” Bell said.

If the legislation passes, CDE would be responsible for overseeing the high-impact tutoring grant program, which would require participating districts to report program data yearly. Bill supporters have underlined the need to prioritize low-income schools and also want to ensure dollars reach communities hardest hit by the pandemic — including rural communities and communities of color.

Dutta, of DFER, believes high-impact tutoring will significantly boost districts’ efforts to help students overcome learning gaps stemming from last spring and this school year. But he emphasized that it’s one component of a “multifaceted answer.”

High-impact tutoring “shows clear positive results for all students,” he said, “but especially for students farthest behind.”