Your paraprofessionals can offer high-quality—and fun—tutoring

Denver Public Schools launched Acceleration Academies that pair students who are significantly below grade level with paraprofessionals who are receiving coaching and professional development.
Angelin Thompson
Angelin Thompson
Angelin Thompson is the director of expanded academic learning at Denver Public Schools. She can be reached at [email protected].

As the director of extended academic learning for Denver Public Schools, I was looking for a way to marry my current work of providing academic support for students with my previous work, which was in teacher development. The district had all of these paraprofessionals—who were great with students and had strong relationships with families—but who lacked training.

We decided to launch Acceleration Academies, which we call AAs. They are two-hour blocks after school that pair paraprofessionals who are receiving coaching and professional development with students who are significantly below grade level.

The stakes were deliberately low: It wasn’t about testing or grades. It was about giving students who needed extra help time with caring adults to work at their own pace on a high-quality curriculum, while at the same time helping those adults develop their skills as instructional leaders. We also wanted to make the Acceleration Academies as fun as possible, because sometimes students who are struggling get frustrated and we wanted them to experience some success in areas where they’ve mostly experienced challenges and frustration.

This year, we are slated to run at 40 schools. Here’s how we did it.

Building the Acceleration Academies

We decided to hold AAs after school instead of virtual for three main reasons:

  1. So students would show up
  2. So they’d have adults on site to keep them safe if they went online, and to help them work through things
  3. So we could ensure they saw the same tutors day after day.

School leaders and teachers at each site decide which students attend AAs. There are 20 spots available and students must be significantly below grade level to attend. Students must not be on an individualized educational plan because we know those students will receive additional supports, whereas students with no IEP who are significantly below grade level and have not been found to have a learning disability often fall through the cracks.

The entire block for Acceleration Academies is two hours long and begins with a 15-minute social-emotional learning activity. That’s followed by a snack and then students go into 45 minutes of math or literacy tutoring. Students receiving support in both spend the next 45 minutes on the other subject, while those who are there for one or the other continue in that subject. For the last 15 minutes, they may have a closing circle or another SEL experience designed to motivate them and send them home knowing that they are loved and that we look forward to seeing them tomorrow.

Most of the work that students do in AAs is individual. Since the students attending are behind grade level academically, they are all at different levels. We chose the platforms we use in AAs to support that individual, self-paced approach, and it also provides the paraprofessionals with an opportunity to work one-on-one with students on a quick math or literacy lesson.

Fun and family

Fun is important for all of us. Even adults dread work unless they know they will feel welcomed and appreciated and have an opportunity to do something that brings them joy or fulfillment. So often, however, students who are significantly behind feel discouraged about learning and even about themselves. They start to think, “Why can’t I get this? There’s something wrong with me.”

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That’s why it was so important to us to lighten the mood and to provide a space they want to come back to day after day. That’s why we looked for learning platforms that would incorporate fun to such an extent that students don’t even necessarily know they are learning.

For math, we’re using ST Math, which is a visual instructional program that easily adapts for after-school use and tasks students with creating a board game based on math concepts that they have learned. All of the schools with Acceleration Academies will also have access to ST Math beyond the after-school program. For literacy work, we are using Literacy Pro, which features an online library that can be translated into a plethora of languages so that families can read with their students at home in whatever language they prefer.

We know that the more students are exposed to math and reading at home, the better they perform in those areas at school, so we chose these platforms because they encourage family engagement. To help them learn to use the platforms, we host two family nights for literacy and two for math each quarter.

Families are important to instruction in many ways but often need support in academic areas like literacy and math. Family nights are an opportunity to better equip parents and guardians to support their children’s learning. Rather than turning family members into teachers, we invite them to partner with us. We encourage them to be joyful about learning with their children—and to share the belief that these students can become mathematicians, readers, writers, scientists and explorers.

We want struggling students to engage with these academic concepts more frequently but without the pressure of achievement. We want to take the stress away and help them move to where they want to be without worrying about anything other than having fun.

Supporting paraprofessional growth

Each Acceleration Academy has four paraprofessionals—two for literacy and two for math—and 20 students. During the school day, the paraprofessionals aren’t employed for any instructional purpose, but having adults in our classrooms who have no instructional role doesn’t make any sense. Instead of having them grade papers, put up bulletin boards or do other work traditionally associated with paraprofessionals, we make them available to work with a small group of students during class time.

Previously, our paraprofessionals didn’t receive any professional development to help provide instruction. Now, those who choose to work in the Academic Accelerators have coaches who help them learn to better communicate with families, create relationships with students and develop the other soft skills teachers need. They also learn teaching strategies, how to use student data and how to work with the platforms in our AAs. They meet with their coaches twice a week and have professional development days throughout the year for training on specific software or other tools.

We believe it’s a win-win to get paraprofessionals involved in instruction. They receive additional pay, along with professional development, while AA students receive high-quality tutoring. Other students benefit from the growing pedagogical knowledge of adults they work with throughout the school day. We’re doing some research to see if those assumptions pan out in the hopes that other districts can benefit from the model.

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