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W&M students support local elementary students as Virtual Learning Partners

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    Virtual Learning Partners:  Ann Duke '22 (center), a student facilitator for the program, meets weekly via Zoom with fellow W&M volunteers to discuss the week's tutoring sessions.  Courtesy photo
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With local schools closed for much of the fall semester due to the pandemic, Olwen Herron, superintendent of Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, knew that partnering with William & Mary was one way the division could better support their K-5 students during virtual learning. Herron reached out to President Katherine Rowe and School of Education Dean Rob Knoeppel with the idea — and a new partnership was born.

“The pandemic has certainly demanded innovative thinking from all of us, and we’re grateful to our partners at William & Mary for taking our seed of an idea for a virtual tutoring program and developing it into a sustainable and effective program,” said Herron. “This has been a great opportunity to provide students an additional layer of support to make a positive impact on learning. We have a great relationship with W&M and we are always impressed by what our teams accomplish when we collaborate.”

"From my first conversations with Dr. Herron last summer, it became clear that W&M and WJCC were grappling with the same questions: how can we support our students to keep learning under pandemic? What tools do we have available to ensure their wellbeing?” Rowe said. “This partnership seemed so right: W&M students in the Virtual Learning Partner program gain valuable experience amid unprecedented challenges; WJCC students K-5 gain mentors at a critical time. For W&M, we gain by the deeper connection with our localities. I'm proud that we are part of this impactful partnership."

William & Mary has long worked with local school divisions to provide tutoring and mentoring services to students. Every year, the School of Education places many of its students in local schools for field experiences through its teacher education, K-12 leadership, school counseling and school psychology programs. In addition, student-run service organizations, including Griffin School Partnerships and Lafayette Kids, train and match undergraduate students with local elementary and secondary students for tutoring.

This year, though, the pandemic and the pivot to virtual learning complicated all of these efforts. By combining many of these projects and leveraging their strengths and numbers, a new virtual program could provide W&M students with opportunities for service, leadership and professional training — all while supporting local children and their families during the pandemic.

In collaboration with WJCC Schools, a committee from the School of Education was tasked with developing the Virtual Learning Partner (VLP) program. The team included Kelley Clark, director of teacher education; Kristin Conradi-Smith, associate professor of reading education; Mark Hofer, professor of education and director of the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation; Meredith Kier, associate professor of science education; and Patrick Mullen, associate professor of school counseling. An early challenge was building a program that served a wide range of needs among its K-5 student tutees.

“We knew that local elementary students would have a range of varying needs,” said Clark. “For example, those students who struggle with motivation or have working parents would benefit greatly from having someone check in weekly and provide encouragement. However, others would be in greater need of academic support, from general help with homework to specific tutoring in math or reading. We designed the program to be responsive and to provide individualized experiences based on student needs. At the same time, we wanted our W&M student volunteers to be supported and recognize the impact they are making.”

Volunteers commit to meet with their assigned tutee for at least one hour per week via Zoom or phone. They also write a weekly reflection of their experience, capturing what worked and what they might try differently during the next session. Periodic check-in meetings with fellow volunteers and a team of supervisors provide another chance for reflection and problem-solving.

The project is offering leadership opportunities for students who have previous experience working with children in educational settings and developing tutoring programs. Many of these supervisors and facilitators are leaders within Griffin School Partnerships and Project Empower, the School of Education’s community-engaged initiative in which school counseling students mentor students in local high schools.

Jenny Niles-Orefice, one of the student supervisors, is a Ph.D. student in counselor education. “As a former elementary school counselor, I find that there is something deeply meaningful about working closely with students to support them during challenging times,” she said. “I turned to doctoral work as a place to learn how we can better support school counselors in their work to effectively serve students, so in many ways this aligns very closely with that idea.”

Patrick Mullen, who serves as faculty director of Project Empower, has provided supervision for the student leadership of the VLP project. 

“This was an exciting moment for Project Empower because it allows our staff to support this likeminded initiative,” said Mullen. “The VLP program has also opened doors to work with other mentoring programs on campus. My hope is that Project Empower staff learns new skills and approaches to mentoring and that we forge long-term relationships across campus so we can best serve the local community through our collective programs.”

The Office of Community Engagement (OCE), which works to promote positive, community-driven social change through a wide range of programs including Griffin School Partnerships and Lafayette Kids, was an integral partner in launching the program. With more than 10 years of experience matching W&M undergraduate students with K-12 students in WJCC Schools, Griffin School Partnerships provided a model and structure that enabled the new virtual program to get off the ground quickly.

“Community Engagement works from a lens of relationships,” said Joy Jackson, coordinator of education programs for OCE. “I hope all of our volunteers come away from this project knowing that one person can make an impact in challenging times and that this impact doesn’t have to move mountains, it only has to touch one person.”

Customized, in-depth training was developed by School of Education faculty for volunteers to prepare them to support virtual learning. In addition to background checks and child abuse training, all volunteers received training in tutoring and relationship-building, cultivating school and community partnerships, child privacy regulations and recognizing trauma.

“I volunteered to participate in the Virtual Learning Partner program because as an elementary education major I wanted to gain even more experience with working one-on-one with a student,” said Emily Stumpo ’22. “Also, I know that these are really challenging times for young learners to navigate through, and I wanted to be a part of a program that helps ease some of those anxieties away.”

Samantha Lowe, a junior majoring in psychology, became a volunteer because she wanted to help a student who might be struggling to feel the spark of excitement for learning in a virtual environment. “I think that having a 1-on-1 format for tutoring really helps with this because I'm able to incorporate specific interests of my student into our activities, and truly cater them to what she likes,” she said. “At the beginning of just our second week, my student joined the Zoom call and shared that she was ‘super excited’ and had been ‘waiting all week long for this!’”

Starting in January, VLP volunteers will have the option to take a 3-credit extension course designed to deepen their learning and help make connections between their own observations and research on various aspects of education, society and culture. Hofer led the development of the course.

“VLP students are developing and honing their communication, collaboration and social-emotional support skills,” he said. “The extension course will encourage students to reflect more deeply on that experience, challenging their assumptions and broadening their understanding of schooling in the United States.”

In the fall semester, the project matched 100 W&M students to local K-5 students for virtual tutoring. With plans for the spring semester in WJCC Schools undetermined due to the changing nature of the pandemic, project leadership is hard at work to scale up participation for the spring.

“This work has convened great minds and great ideas from every corner of this campus,” Knoeppel said. “We’re grateful to the faculty and staff who have worked tirelessly to get this project off the ground, to the students who have volunteered their time and talents, to our partners in WJCC for their collaboration, and to the local families who have welcomed our students into their children’s virtual studies. It’s through this type of collaborative and community-engaged work that we discover new ways to serve and to educate.”