Michael Macaluso, 7, a second grader at St. Joseph Grade School in South Bend, works with tutor Caitlyn Clinton '20 over Zoom. If you are interested in TutorND, a free program for children of Notre Dame staff and faculty, please email email@example.com. Learn more about the program on the TutorND website.
Like many working parents of young children, Kati and Mike Macaluso felt overwhelmed when the pandemic interrupted life’s routines last spring. Just as the couple began working their Notre Dame jobs from home, their children’s school switched to remote learning. All four kids and mom and dad were in the house.
“You can only accomplish so much trying to work full-time at home and be full-time teachers to our children at home,” Kati said. “I was responding to emails at one in the morning because that was the only quiet time to get that done.”
Their two school-aged children — Matthew, then in fourth grade, and Michael, in first grade — navigated virtual instruction for the first time. It was especially difficult for Michael.
“There’s nothing intuitive about telling a first-grader, ‘Here’s your work for today.’ It required a lot of at-home support,” she said.
As hard as the couple tried to keep the kids engaged in their learning, “I just knew there was a slide taking place,” Kati said.
Kati and Mike may be more aware than average parents about the pandemic’s potential long-term impact on student performance. They are professors in the Institute for Educational Initiatives, serving the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program.
As parents and education professors, Kati and Mike knew what their family needed: a tutor.
TutorND is born
As part of the University’s comprehensive response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Working Group on Schools and Childcare was formed, co-chaired by Maura Ryan, vice president and associate provost for faculty affairs, and Robert McQuade, vice president of human resources. The group is charged with determining how Notre Dame can support staff and faculty whose children’s education and child care have been disrupted by the pandemic.
The need for tutoring, specifically in literacy and mathematics, surfaced in a survey of employees. In response, the provost’s office had the bold idea to create a free online tutoring program for children of staff and faculty. Fortunately, there are departments, centers and experts on campus that have experience with tutoring programs.
Two experts are Jennifer Wittenbrink Ortega, the former literacy program director and newly appointed preschool director at the Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC), and Nicole McNeil, a professor of psychology specializing in cognitive development. McNeil directs the Cognition, Learning And Development (CLAD) Lab and serves as director of the Education, Schooling and Society (ESS) program and as an ACE professor.
A curriculum is established
Wittenbrink Ortega and McNeil were acquainted with each other’s work and had staffs of student tutors who might be interested in helping out.
“ESS had an existing relationship with the RCLC, teaming up for community-based learning courses, so I was familiar with their literacy program, which is successful and evidence-based,” McNeil said. “I’m very passionate about evidence-based instruction because it’s been shown to work.”
Wittenbrink Ortega built the literacy curriculum for TutorND with the help of 2017 Notre Dame graduate Celine Marcos, an AmeriCorps volunteer who recently completed tutoring service at RCLC and the Center for Civic Innovation. “Celine knew exactly what she was doing and jumped in,” Wittenbrink Ortega said.
The literacy curriculum is based on methods used by the RCLC (for readers) and the CLAD Lab (for emerging readers). “At the CLAD lab, we use Sound Partners — an evidence-based program for children who don’t know how to read yet. They’re still learning to decode. It’s been tested by multiple research labs and it helps kids learn to read,” McNeil said.
Meanwhile, McNeil built TutorND’s mathematics curriculum using an evidence-based program the CLAD Lab helped develop.
“This has been an amazing and ambitious project that has taken a lot of work, and a lot of time, but hats off to Provost Marie Lynn Miranda and to Nicole and Celine and to everybody who said, ‘Yes, this is worthwhile and important. Let’s do it,’” Wittenbrink Ortega said.
Needed: a project manager
Creating the curriculum was just the start. The tutoring program needed tutors, an online platform to safely deliver instruction and — most of all — a coordinator. The ideal candidate would be someone with project management and teaching experience: Her name is Ashley Bennett.
Bennett‘s normal job is associate director of events and guest services at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Since DPAC was not hosting events or guests — other than classes and students — Bennett had the time and a desire to take on other duties.
“My boss came to me and said, ‘The provost’s office needs somebody to lead this project. You were a teacher for 17 years, so you have the education experience, and you manage projects for us ...’” Bennett said.
She was brought on to the TutorND team and had 15 days to create what Bennett calls a tutoring school, offering structured learning programming for grades 1-6 and homework help for grades 7-12.
“I am kind of the principal of TutorND,” Bennett said. “I joke that I was working 100-hour weeks to get all this ready. It was that crazy. You had the hiring bucket, the curriculum bucket, the technology bucket and the registration/parent communication bucket, and all of this was happening simultaneously, but we did it. We opened the virtual school on Sept. 28 with about 150 students.”
Building a virtual school
You can almost picture the school Bennett describes.
"There is a virtual library where all the materials have been loaded for our tutors to use, and they can pull up a book and read from the book and then the child reads to them from a shared screen,” she said.
The Office of Information Technologies (OIT) built it.
“Justin Howell and Chad Hoefle created the technology infrastructure for this. We have 30 TutorND accounts that create all these different Zoom sessions because you can’t have all these concurrent sessions through the same email account,” Bennett said.
“They built the sessions where the child goes into a waiting room and the tutor and the observer must be present to grant the child access into the classroom. That adds another level of safety.”
Assigning the observers was another task for Bennett, and she turned to her DPAC colleagues and volunteer ushers to fill those roles. Most of the tutors — 39 of them — are Notre Dame undergraduate students.
“And we sought out 2020 Notre Dame graduates who didn't have jobs yet, as well as other interested applicants who might have an interest in helping out,” Bennett said.
Her right hand assistant is Marcos, who works from her home in California.
“Celine and I talk to each other every day for hours and hours, and we laugh that we could pass each other on the street as if we don’t know each other since we have never met in person,” Bennett said.
Approximately 150 students enrolled for the fall semester, and Bennett has started a waiting list of interested families for the spring. It’s no wonder why there’s interest. The need is high and word traveled about how well the program has turned out.
“One is my son Noah, and I am the guardian of another young man, a friend of his who has come to live with us. Both have learning challenges. Noah has dyslexia and dyscalculia, so book learning is difficult. And the other young man has ADD and has trouble focusing on anything for long periods of time,” Cox said.
While the boys, who are seniors, have consistently struggled in school, remote learning has increased the challenge. But sophomore tutor Emma Bartley has made all the difference.
“Emma meets with one of them on Mondays and Wednesdays and offers help to the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She has been incredible with them,” Cox said.
“I sometimes get frustrated helping Noah with homework. I will explain things to him three times and he’s still not getting it and I don’t know how else to explain it. That doesn’t happen with Emma. She’s so patient and she just keeps looking for new ways to explain things until Noah finally gets it.”
Meanwhile, at the Macaluso house, 2020 Notre Dame graduate Caitlyn Clinton tutors Matthew and Michael, one after another, on Mondays and Wednesdays.
“Matthew is now in fifth grade and he is doing the math strand and Michael is in second grade and he is doing the literacy strand, which focuses on reading and writing,” Kati Macaluso said.
Like Cox, she has found her kids are open to help from their tutor.
“My husband and I are pretty adamant that the kids read every day, even the school says they have to get that done. Michael would resist reading. We just came across as nags,” Kati said.
"I’ve noticed when he’s working with Caitlin, he’s obviously not going to give her pushback, and he’s been reading ‘Goosebumps’ with her, which is also a series they would not encounter at school, so that makes it fun, too.”
Tutors also benefit
Senior Olivia Jazbutis is one of the tutors. She is majoring in neuroscience and behavior and minoring in history and compassionate care in medicine. She plans to go to medical school to become a pediatric neurologist.
“I want to continue working with children and perhaps cognitive developmental disabilities,” she said of her eventual career.
“The practical experience of tutoring motivates me to go into the field of pediatric neurology. It gives me a novel understanding of cognition and learning that textbooks can’t teach. Perhaps it will also help me to understand the cognitive processes behind certain disorders.”
Jazbutis became involved in TutorND because she already tutored and conducted research through the CLAD Lab and played a key role in helping to translate one of the lab’s math interventions to the virtual format.
“For two students, I use the math curriculum. It’s grounded in cognitive development research that primarily focuses on how children learn math and was conducted in Professor McNeil’s lab,” she said.
Jazbutis also uses the Sound Partners phonics program with another student. She enjoys getting to know her students and learning about what motivates them.
“I try to foster an environment where each student feels able to express themselves while working toward accomplishing their goals. With my Sound Partners student, we start off every session with an animal poem because this student really likes animals. I let her guess what the animal is that we’ve read about,” she said. “We make it fun.”
TutorND to be offered this semester
TutorND will continue when the spring semester starts at Notre Dame. Thanks to survey responses, the benefits the program provided in the fall were crystal clear: Parents loved it.
The Macalusos found the curriculum complements what the boys are covering in school and has helped them gain ground. Michael, who had resisted reading, is now writing his own stories.
“He has a fantastic imagination, and now he has an outlet for that. Last night he shared with me a book that he co-wrote with one of his classmates over Facetime called ‘Super Turtle,’” Kati said.
“And Matthew has become so confident in multi-digit multiplication and multi-digit division that he can now focus more on the conceptual understanding that his fifth-grade teacher is trying to inculcate in him,” she said.
Cox, meanwhile, believes his boys would not be doing as well as they are in school if not for their tutor.
“I honestly think they would be at risk of not graduating,” he said. “I am so grateful, and am reminded once again what a great place Notre Dame is. It really is just a big family.”