By: Megan Conn
As students across the country struggle to keep up with their schoolwork while sheltering from the coronavirus, tens of thousands of foster youth will now have access to one-on-one support from a free tutoring program being rolled out nationwide.
A few months ago, leaders at the online tutoring platform Learn to Be reached out to offer their help to iFoster, which connects foster youth to resources. The two quickly set up a pilot program to match young people in Central and Southern California, New York City and West Virginia with virtual tutors. The feedback has been so positive that they are now opening it up to all of iFoster’s more than 53,000 active members and any youth eligible for membership.
While iFoster already offered some drop-in tutoring, the new program is unique because it will pair students with a personal tutor who they can meet with regularly. Learn to Be students typically work with a tutor one hour a week for an average of eight months.
“Having the same tutor can really help them build trust over time, knowing that this is one person who cares about them and will help them move along in their studies,” said Serita Cox, co-founder and CEO of iFoster. The consistency also helps tutors better understand students’ needs and track their progress, she added.
The students in the pilot program ranged from ages 6 to 16, and the majority have requested help with math, according to Jill Bloch, iFoster’s New York director. Many need help with more than one subject.
The academic challenges for foster youth are well known. The trauma of being separated from parents, and often from family and siblings as well, can be a barrier to succeeding in the classroom. Add to that the frequency with which foster youth often change schools, a problem that persists despite years of federal policy changes meant to guarantee that youth in foster care can remain at their school of origin.
As a group, foster youth have significantly worse educational outcomes than their peers. A major study of three midwestern states found that nearly one-quarter of youth who age out lack a high school diploma or GED at age 21.
The months of virtual learning necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic have only exacerbated those disparities. In Los Angeles County, the first public schools re-opened for in-person instruction just over two weeks ago, primarily for the youngest grades. New York City public schools went back online last week after offering hybrid learning for just seven weeks, which less than a third of students attended.
In California — home to about half of all iFoster members — only 56% of foster youth graduate from high school within four years, and they are less than half as likely to meet state standards in math and English, according to state data. California foster youth are also two and a half times more likely to have a disability requiring a specialized education plan.
“It’s a freaking nightmare — students get one hour a day of interaction with the teacher on Zoom and it’s not one-on-one,” Cox said. “They were mailed a bunch of homework they’re supposed to do on their own, but their caregivers might be working, or not remember algebra.”
Research has shown that one-on-one tutoring could be a significant weapon in the fight to improve the academic experience of foster youth. A recent meta-analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that such tutoring yields “substantial positive impacts on learning outcomes,” with the strongest effects found on children in earlier grades.
Until recently, around 1,000 foster youth were waiting to be matched with a tutor in Los Angeles County alone. Learn to Be has more than 5,000 volunteer tutors around the country, many of them college students, and some can tutor in Spanish and other languages. Almost as soon as iFoster notified Los Angeles County about the program expansion last week, the calls began to flood in.
Cox said shewas “thrilled” that Learn to Be has committed to meeting the needs of many more foster youth.
“Caregivers and agencies are so very, very thankful,” she added, “and the students really like their tutors, which is the best thing that can be said.”