By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
A major concern with virtual learning is that it will exacerbate pre-existing inequalities. School boards, government officials and nonprofit organizations are scrambling for solutions to make sure disadvantaged students do not fall further behind and do not penalize those who already have. Stepping into some of the educational gaps created by the pandemic are students themselves.
Dozens of high school students in San Diego are tutoring peers and creating educational events that help teach underserved communities. Organizations like Kid by Kid, Dream High Black Girls and All Girls Stem Society are bridging educational gaps through extracurricular teaching.
“I think that it’s important for every child to get some extra help and really have someone to foster their lesson learning because it really only takes one person to help a child through a subject that they’re struggling with and allow them to engage with the material in a way that is really special to them, and allows them to progress further in their education,” Catalina McFarland, who volunteers as a tutor, said.
Kid by Kid
Kid by Kid is a free one-on-one tutoring program founded in 2018 by Daxton Gutekunst that partners middle school and high school students with refugee, immigrant and ESL students who need help in subjects like writing or math. The program has gone through a couple locations and iterations, most recently a community center in Normal Heights. Finding a central location with classrooms was a challenge so the move to online tutoring has actually helped the program participation increase dramatically since going virtual in June.
Gutekunst is a sophomore at Bishop’s School and half of the volunteers come from other private schools like Francis Parker High School. Some of the students receiving free tutoring include refugees through Karen Organization of San Diego (KOSD). Despite the disparity in background between tutors and students, Gutekunst said people are able to build connections because of the similarity in ages. Most tutors are only a couple years older than students, which he said is less intimidating than asking for help from an adult.
“You’re learning from a friend. You’re learning from a peer. It’s not so much that tutoring with an adult isn’t effective, we just have seen that this camaraderie that is forged over these sessions is really beneficial to students,” Bankers Hill resident Gutekunst said.
Not requiring transportation to a physical location on Saturday mornings has made participation in the program explode. Typically, 50 students and 50 tutors connect over Zoom for one hour each week.
The organization seeks to provide individualized teaching to students who may not receive the attention they need in a classroom.
“I think the pandemic has just made everyone more aware of their privilege, especially me and the students at my school which is why we’ve had so many people start tutoring. When we have this ability, especially through technology like Zoom and screen share, to provide some support and guidance to children who maybe even before the pandemic did not have the sort of attention that we get at school. When we have that ability to help them, I think [it’s a] responsibility and also it’s really a gift to be able to engage with other children,” McFarland said.
Still, some inequities remain even after moving virtually. Tutor Niamh Malhotra, who also attends Bishop’s School in La Jolla, said after two sessions a child she tutored had to quit due to internet issues.
Since then, Malhotra was paired with a first grade student who needs help with reading and writing. Malhotra said she has seen the student’s reading improve this year although teaching writing virtually has proved challenging. Through the tutoring, they have developed a positive relationship and even read spooky Halloween stories together.
“She’s so sweet. She drew a picture of me the other day like a princess and she said, ‘Look at the view.’ And I think I’ve just loved to build a relationship with her and help her with the same things every week,” Malhotra said.
All Girls STEM Society
Another program led by students themselves has adapted to provide learning opportunities virtually. All Girls STEM Society (AGSS) is an organization entirely led by high school students for girls in grades 3 through 8. It challenges the underrepresentation of women in STEM by encouraging and inspiring the next generation.
Each month, the high school students host a free workshop on a particular subject in science, technology, engineering or math. Before the pandemic, the group often met at Mission Valley Library. Although attendance has dropped since going online, club presidents Amanda Tran and Emma Hong said 30 girls still come to each workshop plus 20 to 30 high school volunteers.
In their upcoming event in December, high school students will teach the participants about cryptography – making codes. Attendees will have activities about historic code-making and -breaking efforts as well as learning about modern encryption of online communications.
Switching to virtual learning cut back on participation but the leaders discovered making teams where their participation was tracked at each event with a winner at the end helped break the ice. Despite the competition, AGSS is intentional about creating a supportive environment where people can ask questions.
“It teaches them to gain that self-confidence, not just in the classroom but in general when they learn something new or they don’t know something, they’re not afraid to ask questions,” said Tran who is a senior in high school.
Even as young students, Tran and Hong said they both questioned their abilities in STEM fields because of the way they were treated in male-dominated settings.
Tran said that in an extra math class she took, one of the first times she volunteered to put a solution on the board she was belittled by another student. After she found the solution through an easier method than the one he used, he said it was luck not skill that led her to the answer.
Hong said in middle school she thought she hated math because she hated going to math club where she was the only girl. In the club, boys often claimed the problems they solved were easy or trivial when they figured something out so she thought they were better than her. Even after she went on to win an award in the all girls math tournament AGSS hosts annually, she believed the boys were better than her because of they way they talked. It was not until high school when she realized she was just as good as male students, she just did not engage in their competitive banter.
“I had this awakening where I realized I’m just as good as them I just don’t say those types of things. That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to fight against because that’s not a very good environment. It’s all girls because we want them to gain confidence,” Hong, who is a junior, said.
Tran and Hong want to create the encouraging and enjoyable setting to learn about STEM for other girls that they missed.
“We really wanted to make sure other girls had that opportunity and environment,” Tran said.
Even if participants go on to face sexism and discrimination in the future, the girls’ formative memories of STEM at AGSS may show them they are capable and even enjoy learning about these subjects.
Like tutors connected to refugee students through Kid by Kid, these high school volunteers are finding innovative ways to teach historically underserved communities even amid the challenges posed by COVID-19. To learn more about Kid by Kid or to make a donation to their Christmas gift drive, visit www.kidbykid.org. To learn about upcoming events hosted by AGSS, visit www.allgirlsstemsociety.org.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.