Can one-on-one, targeted tutoring provided to disadvantaged students in their very first years of school help reduce the achievement gap?
The Palo Alto school district and one East Palo Alto youth program think -- and hope -- so. The school district has partnered with East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring (EPATT) to launch Project Rally, a pilot early literacy program that targets primarily Palo Alto Unified students who are from East Palo Alto.
Project Rally is one of the first tangible results out of the district's minority achievement and talent development advisory committee, which issued in May a set of strategic recommendations to address Palo Alto's longstanding achievement gap. The recommendations strive to shift what the committee's final report described as a "tale of two cities: a Palo Alto for a high-achieving majority of students, with access to enrichment opportunities and high expectations, and a Palo Alto in which access and expectations for students of color and students from lower-resourced backgrounds are limited."
The committee's work -- which emphasized the powerful, long-term impacts that early education and interventions can have on student success -- dovetailed with a similar effort at East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring, a nonprofit that provides tutoring and tennis lessons to K-12 students and coaching to their parents. EPATT was hoping to expand to provide individualized literacy support to young students from East Palo Alto who attend school in Palo Alto through the district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP), said EPATT Academic Director Kesha Weekes.
"Our big thing is helping kids access the curriculum that's in front of them because they're in Palo Alto," Weekes said. "They're getting the best of the best -- the best teachers, the best resources, the best curriculum. Palo Alto has the luxury of reading specialists, aides, TOSAs (teachers on special assignment) -- all these awesome things, and yet you can be a student and go through kindergarten to 12th grade and come out undereducated after all that. We want to bridge that gap."
So EPATT teamed up with the district to launch Project Rally, which now provides about 23 kindergarteners and first-graders with literacy tutoring and tennis lessons.
On a recent Monday afternoon at Fairmeadow Elementary School, a group of about 10 first-graders sat at tables in a classroom, each with his or her own tutor, practicing sounding out each letter of the alphabet. Outside, a group of about 10 kindergarteners learned fundamentals of tennis with two EPATT tennis instructors. The groups switched after an hour.
There is no set curriculum; rather, these students' teachers provided Project Rally with in-depth assessments of the students' strengths and weaknesses in a range of categories, from phonetic awareness to social-emotional skills. Tutors adjust their sessions to what each student needs to work on.
"The point of one-to-one is to be exactly what somebody needs," Weekes said.
This group of children will receive individualized attention three days a week for the entire year, with some time also dedicated to social-emotional learning and developing skills like how to listen to instructions and how to deal with disappointment or conflict in the classroom.
Weekes said EPATT conducted a focus group this summer with kindergarten and first-grade teachers in Palo Alto to talk about what they would like this population of students to work on. Among their observations, the teachers said that "by and large, students coming from East Palo Alto are passive in their learning," Weekes said.
Project Rally, she hopes, will help instill in these students at a young age a different mindset: "Learning is not something that happens to me; it's something that I do."
Project Rally also plans to work with the students' parents. The minority achievement committee found through focus groups with parents and teachers that there are many barriers that prevent parents from being as involved in their children's education: transportation, time constraints, child care needs, language differences and a lack of knowledge and understanding of how to navigate the school district.
"These parents have the same aspirations for their children as those from high SES (socioeconomic status) families but additional support from the district could have a significant impact on their engagement and connectedness," the committee's final report reads.
As a pilot program, Project Rally began this fall at only two schools (Fairmeadow and Hoover Elementary), but the district and EPATT hope to expand next year to include second-graders and students from other schools. And while the program primarily aims to serve East Palo Alto students, students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are also accepted.
The program will use existing school district assessments to track the students' progress throughout the year, Weekes said.
Families who are interested in applying to the program can visit projectrally.net. Project Rally is also looking for more volunteer tutors; those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org.