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NC Education Corps tutors are tackling learning recovery and building the teacher pipeline

Tutors Alexis Gordon and Liz Hasty walk the halls of South Johnson Elementary in Scotland County, collecting students from their classrooms to give them specialized small-group reading lessons.

They’re focused on helping students who have fallen behind master the building blocks of reading — like learning letter sounds.

“So if I say, 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,' what sound do you hear over and over again?” Gordon asks a group of second graders. Together they sound out: “puh puh puh.”

Gordon is a junior at St. Andrews University majoring in education. As a member of the NC Education Corps, she's also a part-time employee of South Johnson Elementary in Scotland County.

“When you have a kid that comes in the first day and can't tell you what the letter 'A' is, and then two weeks later he knows the letter, knows the sound, you're like, 'Ah, pat on the back. I did something,'" said Gordon.

Joining the North Carolina Education Corps was a win-win for her. She is gaining valuable teaching experience while getting paid $15 an hour. It's also a big win for her students.

“With COVID and everything, there's so many students that are behind, [the school] just needed the help,” Gordon said.

Two of the big buzzwords in education lately are "learning loss" and "teacher shortages." The NC Education Corps has the potential to help address both of those issues.

“On the most basic level, our corps members are working in schools to extend the reach of teachers to be able to provide literacy support to students,” said the nonprofit's executive director John-Paul Smith.

The NC Education Corps started in 2020, with backing from the State Board of Education and Governor Roy Cooper’s office. It boasts big names on its board of directors and advisors including current and former lawmakers, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and former governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin.

Its seed funding came from private funders like the SECU Foundation and C.D. Spangler Foundation. The General Assembly recently invested funds in the state budget to help it grow.

“We're still in startup mode,” said Smith. “We're grateful to just have received the state appropriation of $13.5 million so we can expand our services.”

The General Assembly allocated the money as a one-time payment using federal relief funds for education to support the Corps' infrastructure for recruiting and training tutors. Schools directly employ and pay the tutors, often from their own federal relief funds.

Smith says the Corps probably wouldn't have started without the pandemic.

“It's created this window of opportunity with additional federal funds to get something going that we know we've needed for a long time,” Smith said.

Even before the pandemic, fewer than half of North Carolina fourth graders were proficient in reading, Smith said, based on their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“COVID has made this worse,” he said.

“What we know is personalized instruction, where tutors or teachers are sitting down with students, one-on-one or in small groups, is the way to accelerate learning, and to recover from that unfinished learning,” Smith said.

He refers to this model as "high-dosage tutoring." Education research supports the use of this intensive tutoring as an effective reading intervention in early grades.

The tutors work consistently with students in 30 to 45-minute sessions, three times a week. The tutors receive a five-day training on phonics and they use test data to pinpoint where students need help. That's different from simply reading with a student, because it’s targeted.

“Tutoring is the intervention of choice for people who can afford it,” said Marlow Artis, the director of school partnerships for the NC Education Corps.

Artis has previously worked in administrative roles at Cumberland County Schools, Sampson County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

He recalls often hearing parents at Chapel-Hill Carrboro City Schools, one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, request tutors for their children. The school district also typically draws on hundreds of college students from UNC-Chapel Hill as volunteers.

“That's what we're doing. It doesn't matter what your zip code is. It doesn't matter what your address is,” Artis said. “If your school system is a part of the North Carolina Education Corps, we're connecting you with that high-impact tutor.”

Ultimately, the goal is for students who receive tutoring from the NC Education Corps to improve in reading and see measurable gains. NC State University’s Friday Institute and Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute are monitoring the program and will evaluate its effectiveness.

Liz Hasty spent much of her career as a music teacher in Scotland County Schools. Now retired, she is a member of the NC Education Corps and tutors students at South Johnson Elementary.
Courtesy of Liz Hasty
Liz Hasty spent much of her career as a music teacher in Scotland County Schools. Now retired, she is a member of the NC Education Corps and tutors students at South Johnson Elementary.

NC Education Corps is actively recruiting and hoping to inspire new teachers

The NC Education Corps currently has nearly 200 members in 23 school districts, but they're continuing to recruit up to 250 members this semester and hope to recruit up to 1,000 tutors by the 2023-2024 school year.

Since the jobs are part-time, they typically recruit college students, volunteers already working in schools, and retired teachers.

In Scotland County, the NC Education Corps has partnered with St. Andrews University’s education program to recruit tutors like Gordon. Smith says the Corps has its sights set on partnering with the UNC System and North Carolina community colleges to recruit more of their students as tutors.

Retired music teacher Liz Hasty works alongside Alexis Gordon and says she enjoys spending time with college students on the other end of their teaching journey.

“It's a great training ground for people who might want to be a teacher because you have small groups,” Hasty said. “You can really see the impact that you have on these kids when you see their growth.”

Gordon says just by word of mouth, she's had a couple of friends join the Corps, including one who changed her career goals because of it.

“She's actually now double majoring as an education major,” Gordon said.

This past year, nine recent Corps members were hired by schools full-time to fill open positions.

While the NC Education Corps' main goal is helping kids catch up, their staff say it's an added bonus if they can also bring more young people into the teaching pipeline.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.