after hours

Middle school students trade TV for tutoring to boost reading

Tutor Aaron Whidbee with sixth-graders Elijah Parrilla (left) and Manuelle Lamboy, who attend a new extended-day tutoring program at the Highbridge Green School.
Tutor Aaron Whidbee with sixth-graders Elijah Parrilla (left) and Manuelle Lamboy, who attend a new extended-day tutoring program at the Highbridge Green School.

It was nearly 5 p.m. on a recent chilly November afternoon — in other words, a time of television, text messages, and snacks for most middle-school students.

And yet four sixth-graders at the Highbridge Green School in the Bronx were scouring a young-adult novel, “The Skin I’m In,” for clues about the way writers develop their characters.

“I would like to add on to what Manuelle said,” said Elijah Parrilla, waiting for a nod from his after-school literacy tutor. “It says, ‘Good writers get close to their characters.’”

The tutor, Aaron Whidbee, a former teacher from Yonkers, then asked another question about the chapter, and another student found the right answer. “You guys know what you’re doing here,” Whidbee said.

Highbridge is one of 20 district middle schools in a pilot program run by the city and private partners that extends the schools’ days by two-and-a-half hours — including an hour of small-group literacy tutoring for some students — in the hopes of raising students’ often alarmingly low reading skills. At Highbridge, for instance, 83 percent of sixth-graders read below grade level when they started the year.

“This is a huge opportunity,” said Kyle Brillante, principal of the new middle school, whose goal is to propel students ahead two grade levels this year. “It’s something we have to do.”

The roughly 2,000 sixth-graders in the pilot schools who stay late each day get a meal, an hour of academics and an hour of hands-on activities, including yoga, Salsa dancing, martial arts, robotics, and filmmaking run by nonprofits such as Citizen Schools, City Year and WHEDco.

Mid-level readers, who can decipher words but struggle to make sense of whole texts, spend their academic hour in four-student reading groups led by paid tutors. Other students get help in different subjects.

The three-year, $20 million pilot, known as Middle School ExTRA, began in September. It builds off of the city’s two-year-old Middle School Quality Initiative, which aims to boost literacy in schools in the bottom third of the district, where reading scores chronically trail those in math. The 20 extended-day pilot schools were randomly selected from the 89 now in the middle-school program.

To a degree, the longer-day-plus-tutoring pilot began in Houston.

There, in 2010, Harvard University’s EdLabs helped guide the local school district as it tried to turn around nine of its lowest-performing schools. One striking outcome was that sixth- and ninth-graders in those schools who spent an hour each day in “high-dosage” math tutoring — small-group instruction several days a week — improved as much as if they’d had an extra four to six months of schooling.

Back in New York, a nonprofit called The After-School Corporation had found that in a 2011 model program that paired schools with community groups to add three hours to each school day, students’ state-exam math scores grew at twice the citywide rate.

The groups wondered what would happen if they combined their models, but trained their sights on literacy instead of math. They approached the city’s Department of Education with the proposal and an enticement — $10 million raised by the Robin Hood Foundation from several groups.

The department, which had failed to find a school to use as a literacy model for its middle-school initiative, agreed to partner with the groups and — with the City Council — to match their funding. EdLabs will compare the reading gains of students in the pilot schools to other middle-school students to measure the tutoring’s impact.

“If it works, this is a powerhouse intervention,” said Michael Weinstein, the Robin Hood Foundation’s chief program officer, who noted that schools could adopt the intensive tutoring without major structural changes. “We’ll see.”

Tutor Deborah King with Highbridge student Miosoti Mejia Rodriguez.
Tutor Deborah King with Highbridge student Miosoti Mejia Rodriguez.

The literacy tutoring resembles guided-reading groups, where the tutors suggest ideas to consider while reading, the students read silently while the tutor holds one-on-one conversations, then the group reconvenes to talk about the text.

The tutor guides are highly scripted, with paragraph-by-paragraph questions for each book, since just over half of the tutors have a background in teaching or mentoring. Many of the tutors are retirees and all are college graduates.

But even with the guides, it’s possible for tutors to veer off-script or face unexpected student queries — as when a Highbridge student stumped her tutor by asking what “forage” meant. TASC has tried to keep instruction quality high through ongoing training and site managers to support the tutors.

Another early concern was attendance — would students willingly stay in school until as late as 6 p.m.?

After a bumpy start at some schools, several principals said they have achieved near-perfect attendance by pitching the program as an extension of the school day — “periods 9 and 10,” as several schools put it — not an after-school program.

“It’s not an option,” said Dwight Chase, principal of I.S. 109 in Brooklyn, where sixth-graders now leave at 4:50 p.m., instead of 2:20 p.m. like the other students. “This is the school day.”

Some principals praised TASC’s extended-day model, where the nonprofits that run the extra-hours sessions work closely with the principals to align the school-day and after-school instruction.

They added that with budget cuts that have choked arts funding and tougher standards that demand literacy skills in every class, the extra hours have proved invaluable — so much so, that some classroom teachers have volunteered to work overtime as program tutors.

“There are not enough instructional minutes from 8:30 to 3:30 in which we can provide this well-rounded education for our children,” said Dawn Brooks DeCosta, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, an extended-day pilot school in Manhattan.

Of course, it’s yet to be seen whether EdLabs’ impressive math-tutoring results will translate to reading. And extra school-hours aren’t inexpensive — the pilot costs about $3,000 per student, though that amount includes the trial-study costs.

Back at Highbridge, Elijah and his friend Manuelle Lamboy packed up their novels that afternoon and headed down to their chess and musical-theater classes. Manuelle knew he could be at home watching TV, but said he preferred the longer school day.

“It helps me become a better person on my own time,” he said.

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst ChicagoEdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”