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Tutors, pods and mentors | How St. Louis area parents plan to navigate virtual school

Parents say they do not want to repeat what they experienced in the spring when all school buildings closed
Credit: Willow Tree Tutoring/ Jessica Beeson

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Even though Natalie Ottinger has a decade of teaching experience, she realized teaching her own children during quarantine was not working for her family.

"I cannot be a household manager, own a business, meet deadlines for clients and educate my children the way they need to be educated," Ottinger said. "It’s just too much."

She is working on a solution for this fall, as more school districts have laid out all-virtual or partially-virtual instruction plans. Ottinger is looking to form a learning "pod" — families who share a tutor to teach a group of kids in person. The tutor would facilitate a school district's lesson plans. 

"The pods would help with that social interaction and help with academic retention," said Ottinger, whose kids are 4 and 7 years old. 

Credit: Natalie Ottinger
Natalie Ottinger with her son

The pod concept is becoming more popular and the demand for one-on-one is also increasing, as families find ways to navigate online instruction.

Jessica Beeson, who owns a St. Charles-based tutoring company, Willow Tree Tutoring, said she had 17 voicemails from parents on June 20 — the day many school districts announced their education plans. 

"Calls have quadrupled in the last three weeks," she said.

Beeson said the tutors — either in a pod or one-on-one — will work with the school districts' established curriculum and teachers' lesson plans. Some of her tutors have worked as classroom teachers. Others, like a Boeing engineer who tutors math and science, have expertise in certain subject areas.

"With what we provide, with our experience, we have all the curriculum with the districts," she said. "We are familiar with the benchmarks, where students are at and where students need to be."

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A former classroom teacher, Beeson said one of the downfalls of virtual learning is students not being able to ask questions in real-time. If they're stuck on how to solve a math problem, they cannot just raise their hands in class.

"Students in general, do one of a couple of things," Beeson said. "They either check out and give up and they get almost obsessive over it, so they miss the following material. Being able to get their question answered in that moment will save a lot of stress and heartache and makes it make sense."

Beeson said she is working through a safety protocol to ensure her tutors and the families are as safe as possible. The tutors will all wear masks and they will ask children to wear them, too, if they are old enough and medically able to. Additionally, each family will have its own materials.

Credit: Willow Tree Tutoring/Jessica Beeson

Beeson plans to expand her team due to increased demand. She currently works with five tutors and expects to have about 15 by the winter.

The pandemic has inspired Ottinger to come up with another creative solution to virtual learning. She, too, runs an education-based business and is developing a concept that pairs high-achieving high school students to serve as tutors and mentors for younger children.

"These high school students are young enough that they went through common core," Ottinger said. "High school students can reinforce learning the way it was taught."

She is currently working on a "beta" group for her concept.

Whether it is through one-on-one instruction with a tutor, a pod or a partnership with a high school student, many parents said they want to fill in the gaps left by online instruction.

"There is a lot of truth in that it takes a village to raise a child," Ottinger said.

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