Illinois devoted $25 million in federal COVID funding to a tutoring program. How has it worked so far?


Melissa Sago is the principal at Lincoln-Douglas Elementary School in Freeport. She remembers looking at student academic data last fall and seeing her students — the majorityof whom are low-income — struggling.

“For my school, we were at a sense of crisis,” she said.

Sago felt a sense of urgency. So, when she found out their school qualified to participate in theIllinois Tutoring Initiative, they jumped at the chance. Illinois devoted $25 million worth of federal COVID relief funds to the program.

The principal wanted to lead by example. She recruited teachers and paraprofessionals to sign up as tutors and started tutoring students herself. From December through the spring, they tutored about 16 students in math after school.

But what makes this tutoring “high-impact”? It involves a few things, like meeting multiple times per week and working in groups of three or fewer students. It also doesn’t focus on homework. They assess areas where students are having trouble in class and work on those.

Sago says the small-group format also allows her to build stronger relationships with the students she’s tutoring. Teachers just don’t get much one-on-one time with their students — let alone the principal.

And, Sago says they can already see the academic impact of the Tutoring Initiative. This year, Lincoln-Douglas students’ math scores grew over 12%relative to other students in the state. That’s compared to the average state growth, which was about flat.

“Most of our students that come to our after-school tutoring program have lower income and they actually had better growth than our all-students population,” she said. “So, one thing we’re seeing is that they’re actually growing more than the other students, which is amazing.”

Low-income Lincoln-Douglas studentgrowth scores jumped 18% this year. Now, they’re tutoring nearly 40 kids with a waitlist for more.

High-impact tutoring appears to be helping students statewide too. According to state data, 75% of students who took part in the Illinois Tutoring Initiative during the last school year achieved expected or more-than-expected reading growth. For students tutored in math, it was 80%. And that’s whether they were tutored in the fall, spring, or both.

Christy Borders is the executive director of the Illinois Tutoring Initiative. She says a vast majority of students also self-reported that they were really confident in the material and enjoyed the experience.

“We look at, is tutoring impacting them emotionally or socially? Are they enjoying their sessions? Do they feel as if they’re beneficial for them?” she said. “So, just that self-reflective piece was really strongly positive, over 90% positive in terms of how students were feeling about how tutoring was going for them.”

The program really worked for schools like Lincoln-Douglas. However, only a fraction of eligible Illinois school districts have been able to take advantage of the program.

The state identified and prioritized school districts based on a few factors, like the concentration of low-income students, funding, and schools who faced a “disproportionate COVID-19 impact” — including lost in-person instructional time.

And of the290 Illinois school districts initially identified, only 20% — 59 districts — utilized the program last year. This school year, it’s up to a quarter of districts.

But why didn’t many school districts take advantage of the $25 million project? Borders says there were challenges getting schools on board.

“A lot of our schools in Illinois have already put tutoring in place. So, they were already working with one tutoring program and maybe it was just too much to take something else on,” she said. “We heard a lot of that at the beginning, ‘I can’t just I can’t do one more thing.’ Those people were overwhelmed in general and schools were just trying to get kids back in the building.”

There were also scheduling and transportation issues at some schools. Those were barriers even for schools that did participate. Students attended the tutoring 60% of the time last year.

In the northern Illinois region, 11 out of 33 identified districts are receiving tutoring — including the kids at Lincoln-Douglas Elementary.

Scott Fisher is the superintendent of the South Beloit Community Unit School District. His district was identified for the tutoring initiative and signed up to participate last fall. They were enthusiastic because it was research-based, the initiative would provide all of the tutors, and students in teacher prep programs would help do the tutoring.

That was one of the main selling points of the initiative. College of education students from schools like Northern Illinois University and Illinois State have been tutors for the project.

South Beloit had a local tutoring program and put it on the back burner to focus on the tutoring initiative. But Fisher said last fall the initiative couldn’t deliver on what they promised. He says they were told they’d get 25-30 tutors, but ended up with less than four — none of whom were prospective teachers.

After about a month and a half, they dropped out of it and went back to their old tutoring program. He said they just couldn’t wait any longer to start tutoring their students.

“We were excited,” said Fisher, “but I’ve got to tell you there was some disappointment with how it went.”

The Illinois Tutoring Initiative is supported through federal COVID relief funds known as ESSER. Those funds have to be allocated before September of next year. Right now, over $16.5 million of the project’s $25 million has yet to be spent.

Borders says they have underspent so far, but the goal is to continue scaling, adding more tutors, reaching more students and spending as much as they have remaining. As of now, they’re prepared to tutor students through this school year and into the summer. She’s also hoping the funding deadline will be delayed and they’ll be able to keep going beyond next summer.

“What I continue to say to everyone all the time is, ‘As long as those dollars are available, we will provide tutoring,’” Borders said.

If not, she says they don’t completely know if leftover, unspent federal aid just would go back to the federal government.

At schools like Lincoln-Douglas, Melissa Sago says they’re more than happy to participate as long as the program will be around. She says any way to get more one-on-one support, especially when it doesn’t cost the school anything, is a big win for her students.