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Former Governor Recruits Stuck-at-Home College Students to Combat K-12's 'COVID Slide'

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As schools closed their buildings in response to the coronavirus pandemic, former Tenn. Gov Bill Haslam saw two big challenges emerging: K-12 students faced the threat of huge learning loss, and many college students with cancelled internships suddenly no summer plans.

His solution: Recruit at least 1,000 college students to offer in-person tutoring to as many as 5,000 students who will enter kindergarten through 6th grade this fall, helping them catch up on content they may have missed due to lost time in the classroom.

The Bill and Crissy Haslam Foundation unveiled the newly named Tennessee Tutoring Corps Tuesday, detailing plans to team up with Boys and Girls Clubs and other youth-serving organizations in a pilot program they plan to evaluate as a possible model for other states.

"We know from our time in office that summer slide is a real thing," Gov. Haslam,a Republican, told Education Week. "Kids of all types—but particularly low-income kids—lose much of what they learned the prior year. It's not unrealistic to think that with a summer that's twice as long you could lose maybe as much as a whole year of learning gains. We thought that was important to address that."

The effort comes as states and districts around the country begin to plan how they will reopen schools in the fall, and how they will assess and meet students' varying learning needs when they do. Tennessee leaders have recommended school buildings remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, and approaches to online learning vary by district.

To qualify as tutors, current college students must pass a background check, and the organization will prioritize Tennessee residents with at least a 3.0 GPA who have coompleted their freshman year. The volunteers will earn a $1,000 stipend from the foundation in exchange for part-time tutoring from June to August.

"I think a lot of college students, particularly now, are looking not just for paid work but for meaningful paid work," Haslam said. "We hope one of the side benefits of this is that those college students walk away being more interested in education." 

The organization worked with Nashville-based Instruction Partners to develop tutoring materials based on state learning standards in order to supplement lessons from the last quarter of the school year, when students may have had inconsistent internet access, time, and opportunity to learn new material. 

Once the state sets guidelines for the reopening of youth-serving organizations, Tennessee Tutoring Corps volunteers will meet one-on-one with younger students around the state, following appropriate social distancing guidelines. Online tutoring would be less accessible for students without adequate internet access at home.

"We want it to be person-to-person tutoring, but it may be six feet apart," said Chrissy Haslam, who promoted efforts to address early literacy and summer learning loss in her role as first lady.

"This isn't going to solve the whole problem by any stretch of the imagination," she said, adding that she hopes it's a good start.

Tennessee teachers and parents have made great efforts to continue education after an abrupt switch to remote learning, Chrissy Haslam said, working to quickly connect students to the internet and distribute paper packets of lesson materials in rural areas.

But researchers have warned about the potential for lost academic gains in states around the country, renaming the "summer slide" the "COVID slide." One study projected 3rd through 8th grade students could lose between a half a year to a year's worth of academic growth in math. Schools have also struggled with gaps in student internet access, concerns about parental job loss and family hunger, and significant numbers of students who've fallen out of contact with their teachers during the upheaval.

The coronavirus, and the accompanying economic crisis, have disrupted all areas of government and family life, but the Haslams chose to focus on education.

"The ramifications are almost endless," Bill Haslam said. "The health ones are obvious, mental health issues are raising their head, the list could go on and on. We have always felt that public education is the best hope we have to address so many of our issues in this country. We know that income inequality is a real thing. We know that in times like these, problems that existed before get maginified."

As governor, Haslam promoted expanded college access through programs that promote degree completion and provide tuition-free community college to nearly every high schooler in the state. 

As he took office in 2011, the state was still grappling with the fallout of the Great Recession, but his predecessor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, helped retain education funding. States today will have to make even more of those difficult choices as they deal with declining revenue, Haslam said.

The foundation plans to test participating students' academic progress and evaluate the program's effectiveness.

"It's our hope that, if it does show good success, it is something we will try to continue in Tennessee," Haslam said. "We also hope other states copy it."

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam answers questions during an interview in Nashville, Tenn, in 2018. --AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, file


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