Virtual tutoring program celebrates two years of helping students

When Megan Tervoort struggles with her eighth-grade math, she knows where to go for help – her virtual tutor Hassan Cordash.

“He really explains it in a way I can understand,” she said.

Tervoort is one of the hundreds of elementary and high school students who are benefiting from a UWM virtual tutoring program, based in the university’s Center for Community-Based Learning, Leadership and Research.

The program started two years ago in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic hit, leaving many school students in need of academic help as they struggled with online classes.

Hassan Cordash meets with Megan once a week – virtually – to help her work on algebra. (Photo by Ronnie Alramahi)

UWM’s virtual tutoring program has served more than 700 students, according to Ben Trager, director of community-based learning for the center.

“We were thinking people wouldn’t be as interested as we got back to ‘normal,’” he said, “but then along came delta and omicron, and we just continued getting requests for help. Families were still interested in having the support.”

The center was looking for ways to make the tutoring sustainable over a longer term when it received help from a donor, Gayle Coleman.

Coleman, who had worked for the University of Wisconsin Extension, was in the process of winding down a family business started by her late husband and wanted to invest some of the funds into a social justice initiative.

Focus on education

She decided to focus on education because she felt, she said, that “education is one of the ways we can really turn something around. Early childhood education, especially, can help kids get off on the right foot and feel good about learning.”

“When COVID hit, you could just see how the schools, particularly the lower-income schools, were struggling,” Coleman said. “I knew the kids were really going to suffer and I thought I would really like to put some money behind tutoring.”

She began looking for an evidence-based program and turned to UWM’s School of Education for advice. Hope Longwell-Grice, now senior associate dean at the school, connected her to UWM’s Virtual Tutoring program.

Since then, Coleman has contributed $25,000 each year to help pay for background checks for tutors and support a part-time manager for the program, graduate student Samantha De Forest-Davis.

The Virtual Tutoring Program has changed over the past two years. Initially, it was part of a collaborative effort with other Wisconsin universities that recruited volunteers for tutoring, Trager said. While the universities still remain in touch and consult with each other, the programs have evolved differently.

Free to families

Now most of the UWM tutors come through university courses that incorporate service learning. The tutors come from a variety of majors and receive training. Schedules are flexible to accommodate everyone’s needs. The program is free to families. Many of the students are in Milwaukee Public Schools or come from the Milwaukee area. This semester, 80 university tutors are working with students in grades K-4 through high school. Some tutors work with more than one student.

“Today the VTP seeks to provide academic and social support to elementary and secondary students, continued professional experience for college students, and an opportunity for the UWM community to support the education of young people,” said De Forest-Davis.

Dawn Tervoort, Megan’s mother, was grateful for the support the program has provided her children. Megan, who works with her tutor one hour a week, attends the eAchieve Academy virtual school and is preparing for competitive exams to attend high school. “We are just so grateful for all the help we have received. We feel blessed,” said Dawn Tervoort.

“Hassan is awesome,” Megan added. “He explained things so well and broke them down, so I was able to understand them. He helped me go at a pace I was comfortable with.”

“Very rewarding”

Cordash, a computer science major, started helping in the tutoring program when he was at UWM and has continued working with Megan after transferring to UW-Madison.

“Working with Megan is very rewarding,” said Cordash. “She’s a good student.”

Some of the students who received tutoring early in the program retain ties with their tutors and the university. Trager recently got a call from a family whose child was interested in finding out more about some college classes. “They feel like they have a person at the university they can talk to.”

The program leaders are grateful for Coleman’s support and she, in turn, is pleased with the success of the program.

“I’ve been really impressed with the work they’re doing.”

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