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Combining National Service and Covid Tutoring Corps

With the American Rescue Plan providing an extra $1 billion for national services programs, several states are using federal Covid relief dollars to implement tutoring corps models or expand their relationship with AmeriCorps as a part of learning recovery. FutureEd Policy Analyst Brooke LePage interviewed Kellie Hinkle, Senior Vice President of District Engagement for City Year, an AmeriCorps affiliate, about these investments and how City Year members are supporting students.

What is City Year and how does it relate to AmeriCorps?

City Year is an education nonprofit serving in more than 300 public schools across 29 U.S. cities, dedicated to helping students succeed and to expanding educational equity. We believe that supporting children and young adults contributes to strong, vibrant communities.

We're part of the national AmeriCorps network, which means we receive a portion of our funding from AmeriCorps, and all of the young adults who serve with us are full-time AmeriCorps members. They serve a year or two with our program in schools.

How do City Year members support students’ learning?

They serve as student success coaches, providing integrated social-emotional and academic support that’s grounded in authentic and supportive relationships. We aim to help students cultivate key skills, whether that’s mastering fractions or learning how to rebound after setbacks, that will help them succeed in school, postsecondary education and careers.

Corps members become a trusted and consistent presence in students’ lives—another caring adult they can connect with and rely on as part of their school experience. They greet students in the morning, partner with classroom teachers to lead small group instruction, tutor students one-on-one, help students set weekly attendance goals, run afterschool enrichment programs, and call parents and families to share updates on students.

How did City Year members change their approach to supporting students when the pandemic began?

It was a bit of a scramble in March 2020, but AmeriCorps members had had almost an entire school year of relationships that had been developed face-to-face with students and teachers that could be used in engagement and support of students in a virtual environment.

Our teams worked hard to address immediate needs that our local schools had, whether that was providing meals, delivering computers or helping parents, teachers and students navigate online chats and assignments. And then we worked closely with our school partners to adjust to distance learning and virtual service.

And what about last school year?

Each of the school districts we work with in 20 states plus Washington D.C. required a different approach. Some of our districts began virtually. A virtual environment feels more formal, so it’s difficult to create a personal connection. It takes effort to feel fluid.

But other districts started in-person and were in-person all year. And others were hybrid. Students’ learning experience varied widely which meant our members’ approach to building relationships had to as well. For example, during in-person learning, a City Year member might lead a warm-up activity in class to get students engaged and interacting with one another before the lesson begins, helping to establish a safe and comfortable learning environment. In a virtual setting, this might instead be a posted question or joke in a Google Classroom, with students responding throughout the day and engaged students being randomly selected as “winners” with additional recognition on the virtual platform.

How are members preparing for this upcoming school year?

We’re focusing on building relationships and a sense of community and belonging for students after a year full of disruptions. When students feel like they belong in the school environment and they feel like they’re part of the community, they want to engage in learning. We want students to not just attend but actively engage in school and learning processes.

Do all members learn and use the same engagement strategies?

Our strategies take into account the local and school communities we are serving. It’s impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all or national solution to local challenges. What works in Detroit isn't necessarily going to work in Columbia, South Carolina, and what works in L.A. may not work in Sacramento or Denver. We have AmeriCorps members in 29 U.S. cities. And they work hard to tailor services like tutoring and mentoring to those students’ specific needs and to help schools reach their school improvement goals.

In reading state Covid-relief spending plans submitted to the U.S. Education Department, we noticed states like Arkansas and Tennessee creating statewide tutoring corps. And other states like Rhode Island are explicitly expanding their relationship with AmeriCorps. What role do these types of programs and relationships have in learning recovery?

High-dosage tutoring isn’t new, it’s just being tailored to learning recovery as a result of the pandemic. Tutoring corps tend to be specifically focused on academics. At City Year, we also provide academic tutoring, but it’s integrated with social-emotional skill development, because science shows that that’s how children learn—by weaving together academic and social-emotional skills.

Many under-resourced schools like the ones served by City Year can benefit from additional resources and relationships that help students engage more deeply in their learning, set and reach goals, develop their talents and graduate from high school, prepared for fulfilling, choice-filled lives as adults. That’s what we all want and what our communities and economy need.

[Read More: State Guidance for High-Impact Tutoring]

Those resources might include a high-dosage tutoring corps, or a bigger focus on social-emotional skill development or counselors who support students finishing high school and moving to their next step, and other schools may need intensive mental-health support. It’s important that individual schools can identify their needs and that American Rescue Plan funding can be used to help to address those needs.

What are the benefits of tapping into AmeriCorps affiliates like City Year?

AmeriCorps is effective, cost-efficient and has infrastructure in place. It’s a smart way to scale a program and bring critically needed services, whether that’s in schools or in the local community.

Schools are required to spend at least 20 percent of their American Rescue Plan dollars on evidence-based interventions. Does City Year and its practices have that evidence base?

Yes, we are fortunate that we have a significant and growing evidence base for our impact. First, it’s good to know that every dollar invested in AmeriCorps programs has a $17 return on investment to society. City Year has an extensive history of third-party research validating the effectiveness of our holistic approach, and these studies meet several of the evidence tiers required under the federal law.

A 2020 research study, led by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, explored the relationship between social-emotional development and academic outcomes for students attending systemically under-resourced public schools who were served by City Year AmeriCorps members. The study found that there’s a consistent, statistically significant relationship between student social-emotional skills and academic outcomes and that making gains in social-emotional skills is like gaining an entire school year of achievement growth in math or English.

[Covid Relief Playbook: Smart Strategies for Investing Federal Funding]

The study also revealed that there’s a greater impact when social-emotional skills are integrated into academic interventions, and that more time spent with a City Year AmeriCorps member is associated with improvements in social, emotional, academic and attendance outcomes.

Previous studies found that schools served by City Year were two to three times more likely to see gains in ELA and math than similar schools without City Year. And there’s statistically significant evidence that our holistic approach has an impact on reducing the number of students who are off-track in terms of high school graduation.

How do schools, districts, and states begin partnering with AmeriCorps?

There's an agency in every state that oversees AmeriCorps programs within that state, called an AmeriCorps State Service Commission, which is a great place to start. There’s also the federal AmeriCorps agency, which also manages programs across the country. So, step one is knowing the infrastructure exists, and step two is pursuing one of these outlets and having a conversation about what establishing a program could look like.

Is there anything else education leaders and policymakers should keep in mind about the role of programs like City Year in learning recovery?

We’re excited that federal American Rescue Plan dollars can be used flexibly to meet local needs. I think this is highly beneficial to schools and districts and to programs who work with schools and districts like City Year. Plus, schools are concerned about hiring educators with relief money because of the funding cliff. While City Year and other national service programs are not a replacement for classroom teachers or other educators, they can be a cost-effective, longer-term solution for other types of critical school support.

And we’ve seen schools hold communities together, providing food and more. So I hope we continue to recognize the value of the school itself as a community hub.

[Read More: Fighting Coronavirus with National Service]