Sharon Small knows what it’s like when the students she supports feel like they’re struggling.
She struggled with feeling like a failure throughout middle and high school, and it wasn’t until she got through college that she realized she’d been wrong back then.
“If I had realized it at that point, I could have enjoyed those years so much more,” Small said. She looks at “tutoring as a way to invest in these kids and support them and tell them, ‘It’s not as bad as you think it is, and If I can make it through, you can make it through.’”
Starting this school year, Small has served as the intensive tutor for the Brinnon School District, where her work has resulted in students making significant gains in their academics. In intensive tutoring, Small meets with one or two students at a time during their free periods during the school day, almost every day of the school week.
The 2022 Legislature designated $1 million to be used for intensive tutoring to recruit, hire, and train tutors to support students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Brinnon School District, which serves students in grades K–8, is one of six school districts that was awarded a grant.
Situated on the Olympic Peninsula, approximately 38 miles south of Port Townsend, the Brinnon School District is one of Washington’s smallest and most rural. There are 78 students enrolled this school year and there were six classroom teachers during the 2020–21 school year.
That’s why Superintendent Trish Beathard said that adding one caring adult to their setting is a “game-changer.”
“We can’t really focus on things like a special workbook, a special curriculum,” Beathard said. “It’s all based on people.”
The people who make up the school community are closely knit. Small’s sister is a teacher in the school district, and it’s common for students to be in classes with their siblings or cousins. That’s why building relationships with students has been a priority for Small.
“Kids need one-on-one time,” Small said. “They need that special attention and that feeling of, Somebody notices me and understands where I’m at.”
Within Brinnon’s school community, Beathard said there are high expectations for students’ academic performance.
“We have a lot of kids in poverty,” Beathard said. “If we don’t do a good job [on] that piece, I think we’re letting them down. … It’s wrong to have lower standards and lower expectations for kids that don’t come from a traditional house.”
Of Brinnon’s 78 students, 60.3% come from low-income homes. Combined with its rural setting, Beathard said the school district faced unique challenges when the pandemic closed school buildings.
While WiFi hotspots were widely available, they didn’t always work in the rural areas where students live. But because of the school district’s smaller enrollment numbers, they were able to reopen school buildings more quickly by adjusting class schedules and implementing social distancing.
Keeping school buildings open meant being able to meet the needs of students, especially those who had been facing academic challenges even before the pandemic.
“We have kids who just can’t afford to miss any school,” Beathard said. “Any little disruption is a big disruption.”
For students who are not on track, Small works with them to both nail down the basics and make sure that they keep up with what’s going on in class.
One seventh grade student Small works with, for example, struggles with multiplying and dividing multiple digit numbers. During their time together, Small works with her on multiplication and division drills, and then helps her with her day-to-day classwork and homework.
“Just building her confidence in the basics has helped her when we come to the current stuff,” Small said.
This approach is proving effective. School district data shows that students in first and second grades have improved their reading ability. This is helping them to get them on track with academic expectations, according to Beathard.
What Small sees most often are students who lack confidence in their own abilities. Because she’s been able to build relationships with students, they feel safe telling her how they feel about the subject they’re uncomfortable with.
From there, Small partners with students to figure out what growth looks like for them. When she sees progress, she reflects it back to her students.
“They get excited because they can tell, but somebody else noticed too,” Small said. “And somebody else has walked with them really closely through this progress and gone through the struggle with them, but we’re coming out successful.”
Ultimately, students are leaving intensive tutoring with enthusiasm for school where they may have lacked it before.
“I think that it’s so helpful for those students to be able to change their mindset now, while they’re still young, into, ‘This is possible and I’m more capable than I let myself think I am,’” Small said.
This story was written by Chelsea Embree, Director of Publications & Engagement Strategy at OSPI. You can contact the Communications Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.