For nearly every school, finding ways to ensure that all students are getting the support they need is often the most significant challenge they face. Resources are created and classroom differentiation strategies are developed, but schools often find that very few things can surpass the effectiveness of 1-on-1 support.
At Hillcrest High School (Strawberry, AR), they’ve been exploring how a peer tutoring program could help provide the 1-on-1 support that students often need without overstretching the capacity of their staff. The results have been so compelling that I asked them to share more details around their program and some guidance to other schools that might wish to develop something similar. Rachael Netrefa and Natasha Turner, teachers at Hillcrest High, organized a videoconference call for me to meet with them and a group of students to discuss the key elements of their peer tutoring program.
One of the things that struck me about how they talk about this program is that the results seem to have gone much further than its original intent. Not only are students improving academically, but there are other positive changes taking place as well. A stronger sense of community, a shift in the way students think about improvement, and a deeper understanding of collaboration’s benefits are all outcomes they attribute to this peer tutoring program. However, a lot of schools offer these kinds of supports for students, so what are they doing differently at Hillcrest High School to get such significant impact?
Now that the program is in its second year, the teachers and students shared that it wasn’t exactly an instant success. During the first year of implementation they tried a few different ideas and found that some things just didn’t work well. Meeting once a week after school, the program was initially designed in a very traditional format. Teachers were running remedial lessons aimed at addressing common deficits while attempting to differentiate for the wide variety of needs across all subject areas in the 7th to 12th grade range. This was a huge burden on the staff and they quickly capped the capacity of the program at a level far below what was needed. It didn’t take long before it became clear that the teachers would need to marshal some support if they were going to meet all of the needs within the student body. They decided to recruit student leaders from a service-learning club and the student council to act as peer tutors, which is when the revised program really started to take shape.
Once the capacity limit was increased, with teachers now operating more as supervisors than facilitators, the staff thought that it would be easier for the attending students if there was a curriculum for them to work through. However, it eventually became apparent that this wasn’t the best route to take. As one student said, “We know what we need to work on. We just need time and someone to talk to about it.” The curriculum actually got in the way instead of helping, so they scrapped it and stopped mandating how students use their tutoring time. This proved to be another key turning point in the program’s development.
As a final step in the program’s development, they opened up the tutoring role to anyone that was willing to complete an application and undergo some light training. When asked why a student would sign up to spend an extra hour each week after school, volunteering to help tutor struggling students, the students at Hillcrest High School responded, “When we help someone else understand their work, it also helps us understand our own work.” Once the time was freed up for students to work on their own identified needs, with plenty of available support in the room, real results started to take shape for all of the participating students.
Hillcrest teacher, Natasha Turner, noted that one of the biggest shifts she’s seen is in how students view tutoring and asking for help. “Their mindsets have changed. When they see how tutoring can help them learn, they’re more open to getting help in the classroom too.” She’s also seen shifts in the way the student tutors think as well. “They’ve realized that they can often learn more about something by teaching it to others. And, not just by helping them find the right answer, but in hearing how they might see a problem or topic differently than they do.” Having students engage in reflection about their tutoring seems to really help these mindsets develop. She also suggested that many students simply needed help with staying organized, and that this gives them a structure to support them in that area as well.
In addition to the academic impact, Hillcrest teacher, Rachael Netrefa noted that this program has also positively impacted their school culture by helping students get to know and understand each other in a different way. “When you walk into that room, you can’t tell who is a tutor and who is a tutee. There are just a lot of discussions happening about learning, from everyone.” One student suggested that this openness is the key to the program’s success. She said, “We can work at our own pace, but often we work together on the subjects or projects that are hardest for us.”
When I asked the group to provide their most important tips for anyone looking to start a similar program at their school, here’s what they shared:
- Consider starting your tutor pool with students that may have extra motivation to take on that role. Student council or service-learning clubs can often be good places to start.
- Let the students decide what they need to work on and how best to get their needs met. As teachers, focus more on the logistics of the program (scheduling, location, communication, etc.) and don’t worry about managing the content.
- SNACKS! All of the students agreed that it’s important to have some food available for an after school program like this. Many students are going to or coming from other extracurricular activities, after a long day of classes, and are going to be hungry. Look into whether or not your school already offers after school snacks and use that as a resource, if possible.
- Give students time to reflect on their tutoring experiences. This goes a long way in helping them develop healthy growth mindsets, for both the tutors and the tutees.
- While you may need to require participation for some students, make an effort to destigmatize the program by allowing (and encouraging) any student to attend.
As a problem that so many schools face, it great to hear when someone is finding success. Thankfully, they’re also willing to share how they did it. Rachael and Natasha have provided their application for tutors (here) and training overview (here) for others to use, but are also open to emails from other teachers or administrators that might have questions about the program. Reach out to them, or share your own ideas and questions in the comments!