The November 15 Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education meeting included a long agenda, but the bulk of the board’s discussion time focused on two online tutoring services contracts, valued at $1.5 million each. The board approved the contracts, with board member Ira Jourdain being the sole vote against the contracts.

The contracts will be funded by the district’s ESSERIII relief funds. The tutoring services are as part of Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox’s plan for an academic “boost” in response to pandemic-related declines in students’ academic assessments.

The online tutoring plan was first brought before board members at their October 11 meeting, where Directors Adriana Cerrillo and Siad Ali asked about the effectiveness of using an online approach rather than in-person.

Cox and Senior Academic Officer Aimee Fearing defend the plan, noting that educators have reported feeling strained by a combination of factors this year, including a larger number of vacancies than in previous years, as well as the tight labor market which has made filling vacancies challenging. Cox said it would be “disingenuous” to ask educators to do more under the circumstances.

The online tutoring programs are for school-day intervention, not for at-home use. Schools will likely need volunteers who can help students get situated and assist with the technology, according to Cox.

A motion was brought by Director Ira Jourdain to move the two contracts out of the consent agenda for a separate vote.

“There’s a lot of students who have honestly checked out from the whole online thing,” Jordain said.  For a child, an online experience won’t replace the relational connection they feel when in-person, Jordain explained.

Jordain objected to the district using a virtual solution to its problems, and shared his personal experience using telehealth saying, “It’s not the same experience as meeting with your provider.”

Both Jourdain and Director Sharon El-Amin brought up the district’s previous contract with the online tutoring service Paper, and asked whether the district had any evidence that it had a positive impact on students’ academic outcomes.

The data the district received back from Paper, according to Fearing, showed that very few students utilized the service. She said some students were not aware of the service, while some were discouraged by others from using the service.

Former at-large board member, Josh Pauly, who resigned from the school board last spring, reportedly took a job with Paper after the district contracted with the company for on-demand online homework help.

Fearing acknowledged the controversy, but explained that the purchase of Paper last year came in response to educators’ requests for additional support because of the number of students asking for homework help. The intention was to “give you time back during your day for planning or meeting with colleagues.”

Because of COVID, Fearing said that the district was not able to get additional people into buildings to provide this type of support, so they selected an online provider.

Cox concurred, noting staffing shortages and concerns about educators who are already strained. “This is not a long-term strategy,” Cox said.  

Cox explained that research has shown high-dosage tutoring, defined as at least 20 minutes a day, three times per week, during the school day, is most effective for academic recovery.

According to Fearing, Axiom, one of the two vendors, has the capacity to train community volunteers. She said that recruiting in-person volunteers would be inequitable across the district.

Once the contracts are negotiated, Fearing said it would be possible to train volunteers in the intervention curriculum. Fearing also noted that schools can currently recruit their own in-person volunteers to support students, but that the district has not found there to be a sufficient or equitable supply of volunteers to provide in-person services currently.

There is an urgency to address students’ academic progress now, rather than waiting for additional staff to be hired and trained, according to Fearing. The online tutoring programs would be optional, allowing the principles to decide whether they want to integrate the programs into their schools.

“I believe that our principals are our instructional leaders, and so I trust them to make the right decision for their schools as to whether this works for the students,” Cox said.

“It should not be an option,” Cerillo said. “If we are going to invest all of this money, I feel like educators, principals and everyone needs to be on the same page of understanding that this is about providing for our students, especially after seeing the presentation of the data. It’s very alarming.”

Axiom and Carnegie were selected from five companies who responded to the district’s request for proposal.

Fearing said that a group of 24 committee members, including one community member, selected the two companies, because they can provide one-on-one interventions for students who are academically below grade level. The program would not replace support that students are currently receiving, nor would it replace services students receive as part of an IEP, according to Cox.

The district’s Research, Evaluation and Accountability department will utilize FAST data to determine which students would be eligible to participate in the online tutoring. Because FAST screeners are only administered in K-8, high school students will likely not participate, although Fearning noted both vendors do have K-12 programs. Cox noted that the district does not currently have a screening system in place for 9-12 students, and that is a gap for the district in its student assessments.

Executive Director Sarah Hunter said students who are the farthest from grade level proficiency will be selected to participate.

“That’s a values statement that we’re making as a system,” Hunter said.

Hunter said the contracts will not be enough to provide the service to every student in the district who tested below grade level on the FAST screeners because, “it’s a very large number in our district right now.”

Cox and Hunter explained that the district will be able to use FAST data from the upcoming winter and spring assessments to measure the impact for students who participate. Each company has its own internal system to monitor student progress. Hunter also explained that the district will collect data from students, educators and caregivers on their experiences with the system, and the information that it provides.

Because the contracts have not been negotiated, the district does not know how many students will participate. Cox said the hope is to have around 600 “slots” and that students will be able to utilize the program for a period of several weeks, and then exit the program, freeing up a slot for another student to access the program.