A COVID-era tutoring initiative worked with thousands of Illinois students. Will it continue?

Christy Borders

Christy Borders is the director of the Illinois Tutoring Initiative, an interagency, statewide program that brought high-impact tutoring to thousands of Illinois students following the COVID-19 pandemic.

A statewide tutoring initiative with a tie to Illinois State University has produced demonstrable results in reading and math for students in the past two years, but its status as a COVID-era program funded by pandemic relief money leaves its future uncertain.

Since the 2022-23 academic school year, the Illinois Tutoring Initiative [ITI] has brought more than 83,000 hours of what’s called high-impact tutoring to over 6,000 students across the state.

Conceived in 2021 by the state’s P-20 Council — a group of governor-appointed leaders in education, nonprofits, the trades and government — the ITI’s mission was to offset educational disruptions students experienced when schools pivoted to online learning in the early months of the pandemic.

Data from its first full year of implementation in 2022-23 showed positive results, with 80% of students tutored progressing as expected — or better — in reading, and 90% of tutored students progressing as expected in math. In a joint report from the Illinois Board of Higher Education and Community College Board, tutored students self reported feeling more confident in their academics.

But as a COVID-era program funded with $25 million in ESSER funds, the pandemic relief money earmarked for school districts, the ITI currently has an end date of this summer — something its proponents hope to change.

“What we know is our timeline: We know when federal dollars will end,” ITI director Christy Borders, who’s based at ISU’s College of Education, said in an interview. “So right now, we’re just talking with the legislators and seeing if it is a possibility for us to continue beyond Oct. 1.”

Recently, Borders appeared before the House Higher Education Appropriations Committee for a hearing “to let them know that this initiative has been effective and for them to consider different ways that may be available for this to continue moving forward through state, versus through federal funding.”

Borders also has appeared before groups in other states to discuss the ITI, since its model is unique to Illinois.

For one thing, the tutoring is offered to eligible districts via nearby or regional colleges and universities, meaning the pool of tutors is hired and trained by those institutions and not districts that, largely speaking, have experienced difficulties staffing basic positions.

District eligibility was determined via evaluating a combination of “adequacy of funding, concentration of low-income students, disproportionate COVID-19 impact, lost in-person instructional time during the 2020-21 school year, and current level of academic support resources and programs,” according to ISBE.There were 48 participating districts in 2022-23; this year, there are 67.

Ties to Illinois State University

Illinois State has served as the ITI’s central office, organizing efforts in other regions alongside other institutions, including Governor’s State University in Chicago, Northern Illinois University, Illinois Central College, Southern Illinois University (Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses) and Southeastern Illinois College.

That organization is solely unique to Illinois, Borders said.

“When the early conversations were happening about what this model would look like, we said that what we know is that Illinois State, which was the seat from which I sit, already had relationships with 700 school districts across the state. So when we were talking about it early on, we said, ‘These institutions of higher education and our community college partners already have deep, lasting relationships with their local communities — so let’s leverage that,” Borders said. “That’s why it looks different.”

ITI tutors also are only required to have a high school diploma, which Borders said was an intentionally low-set threshold meant to broaden the pool. If selected, the tutors are trained for high-impact tutoring through ITI. Borders said that decision was partly “an equity initiative.”

“We have some tutors that are fresh out of high school, 18-years-old, that’s their first job. We have many university and college students. Then we have tutors all the way up to those with doctorates,” she said. “Those tutors are as varied as the students they work with.”

The tutoring ITI offers is titled high-impact tutoring because it emphasizes a high amount of engagement: Multiple sessions per week and a focus on relationship-building between tutor and student beyond academics. Students who participated in ITI, which is now in its seventh semester, were identified by districts as those who would most benefit from the more individualized attention.

“We’ve heard stories about tutors where students will come into the group, having just a really hard day, and the tutor doesn’t just say, ‘Well, shake it off. Let’s get to multiplication.’ Instead, they’ll spend the beginning of that session helping them work through some of those social, emotional aspects happening and then move them into their academic task,” Borders said.

Borders said the ITI measures its efforts internally to “make sure the tutoring that’s happening is, indeed, high-impact tutoring — and not just homework help.”

That caught the attention of the federal Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President, which wrote in a December report “the significant role of high-quality, high-dosage tutoring in [Illinois’] recovery efforts suggests it is a successful strategy worth replicating elsewhere.”

Borders would settle for at least keeping it in place in Illinois.

“We really are asking for about $10 million of continued appropriation [from the state],” she said. “That’s a lot of money to be asking for and there are a lot of people asking for dollars right now. We appreciate the chance to have talked with our legislators in the state and school districts about this initiative… and understand it’s kind of out of our hands beyond that.”