The Herald was recently able to speak with Amy Jackson, Assistant Director of The Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCSEL). This year, Jackson has had to handle the task of moving the HWS Corps tutoring program to a completely remote setting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a traditional year, HWS students would travel to schools within the Geneva area to read to students as a part of the tutoring program. This year, tutors have been paired with individual students grades K-12 in districts from Canandaigua to Seneca Falls to Penn Yan. Over the fall and spring semesters, Jackson has been responsible for hiring and managing about 80 tutors, and for placing these tutors with over 150 different students. Her work is much appreciated, as many student and parent testimonies following the fall semester have lauded the tutoring program.
Here is what Jackson says about her work:
First, can you tell us about yourself and your job at HWS?
My name’s Amy Jackson. I’m the Assistant Director of CCSEL. I started in April 2019 after working with Geneva 2030 for a number of years. I oversee all of the HWS Tutor Corps tutoring, as well as community engagement activities, including the Blood Drive, the Community Lunch Program, our Days of Service and HWS Votes, as well as independent efforts and outreach in the community. There are a wide span of volunteer opportunities for students during their time here.
What was the most difficult part of adapting to a digital format for the HWS tutoring program?
There were a lot of challenging parts, but communication with parents was probably the hardest thing we’ve dealt with. I think anybody who has had to create an entirely virtual program has found a lot of challenges as they’ve gone along.
During this past year, everybody has been so stressed and many have struggled with doing what normally would be easy, such as answering an email. I was actually concerned more with HWS tutors responding to email, because in the past that has not been the best way to communicate with students, but HWS tutors have been fabulous with email this year and have been very responsive. I’m so impressed with their connection to this process. It’s been the parents who are just struggling with so much on their plates, and that’s resulted in more communication issues. So I just keep asking the tutors for patience as we work through it.
This tutoring effort has become so individual this year. There’s not a handful of physical sites and schools where everybody goes to one place and the elementary students are already there. Instead, there are over 100 different individual students and their parents in the program, so there are a lot of varied communication efforts. I think without COVID it would be a lot smoother, but that’s the nature of the situation right now, and because of the pandemic everybody has been so much more stressed. I think time is harder to manage for parents who are trying to fit in working hours with students who are home. I really feel for the parents. We all come at it from this place of understanding, but it has definitely been a challenge.
What parts of virtual tutoring are you excited to get rid of once things open back up more, and what parts would you want to keep moving forward?
One of the best parts of our pre-pandemic tutoring program is being able to sit with a student and connect—to be in their space, working together. I was concerned about losing that. Yet I hear from virtual tutors this year that while it can be a struggle across the Zoom continuum, there’s also something really good about having this really intense connection one-on-one where there are no other distractions and there’s just the two of you working together and connecting online.
The student doesn’t see their buddy at the next desk over working on something, and the tutor and student aren’t in this bigger space where there are all these other distractions to focus on. It’s just you and your student trying to create this bond. It’s hard to connect in the beginning, but once you have that strong bond, you can have such a huge impact on that student, which is no small thing this year especially. So I think losing that intense connection may be a loss. But there are plusses to being in-person again that will outweigh that.
The flexibility for parents will also be a loss, because normally we have to do tutoring right after school, and now we have tutoring at six o’clock at night or on the weekends, so it’s been much more flexible for parents and for our HWS tutors. Normally, HWS students who are more science- and math-oriented don’t usually participate in the tutoring program because their labs often conflict with the afterschool tutoring hours, but this year they’ve been able to connect more with the program, which is really nice.
What I’m not going to miss are the safety concerns, like having to do complete all of the background checks and the minors on campus trainings. We normally don’t have to do that, because we typically go to sites where there are supervisors. Logistically, it was a real struggle to quickly get all the new tutors through that process, so it’ll be nice to let go of some of that.
But I will miss that flexibility for tutor’s schedules and the focused one-on-one time … Maybe we’ll find a way to create a hybrid program after this where we keep the best parts of the online program, without having to rely entirely on this virtual system.
How do you believe virtual tutoring has helped the Geneva community throughout this pandemic?
Well, I go back to the parents, who are so overwhelmed, and the students, who are so overwhelmed. To be able to provide that one-on-one connection and support is so key for helping students through this–not just academically but for these kids who are struggling socially too–not having a lot of attention sometimes, not being able to meet up with friends, and so on. And now twice a week these students get to meet up with this great tutor that they have a good relationship with who is focused entirely on them. It’s vital for kids to feel important and valued. So I think that’s a really big benefit to the local kids who have been struggling a lot with this pandemic.
Usually, we focus almost entirely on Geneva with our tutoring program, and it’s always nice to be able to do that, but this time we opened it up, because we had enough tutors. So we’re helping students in Midlakes, Seneca Falls, Waterloo. All around us these neighboring communities are able to take advantage of this resource.
And this resource is tremendous—because our tutors are amazing. The tutors, the coordinators, our literacy leaders—they all work so hard to make this program successful. They have such high standards, and that’s why it’s been so effective overall. It wouldn’t have been without their professionalism.
For Geneva students specifically, we hope to collect data over the summer to see if we can track what impact we might have had on their academic year. But anecdotally, I hear amazing stories. We hear stories of students who were struggling with grades in the 50s and 60s, who are now in the 80s and 90s, and not just that, but feeling really confident in the work they’re doing. They’re saying they’re excited to take a test because they know the material. Without our program, who knows whether that student would have ended up feeling so empowered, and I think that’s a really wonderful thing to be a part of.
How do you stay positive during these difficult times?
Because I’ve been working remotely, this tutoring program has been a real positive for me. Despite the huge amount of work and the struggles we’ve had, especially in the fall, this program has connected me with both families and local school kids and with HWS students, who are all so devoted. Overseeing this program has helped me feel better about the future and where we’re headed, so it’s been a really good program to be involved with in that way.
Sometimes I have to check in on parents and the things they’re struggling with. I just got off the phone with somebody whose children missed a couple of tutoring sessions, and it was just a terrible story–there was a traumatic event added into the middle of all this other stressfulness. And then, I’m sitting there on the phone thinking that this parent is never going to want to continue with tutoring, that it just can’t be important after what the family has gone through. But instead, this parent immediately said, no, no, no–we have to keep the tutoring going. It’s so great for my kids. This will help them through and keep them focused. So, it ended up reinforcing how good this work is and how important it is. So I feel thankful that this has been a part of my experience with the pandemic. Outside of work, though, I spend a lot of time with my dogs, I’ve baked a lot, and I took up painting, of all things. So there’s stuff on the homefront that’s been positive too. I’m looking forward to the warm weather and winter in our rearview. And to everyone being vaccinated and safe. I’m looking forward to that the most.
Featured Image by Ani Freedman.