Free Online Tutoring Supports Guilford County Families

In North Carolina's Guilford County Schools, we're doing everything we can to get parents more involved in their children's education. While many parents would like to support their children's learning at home, parents sometimes don't have the resources they need to do so effectively. To solve this challenge, we've taken a number of steps to support parents in our community — including making a live online tutoring service available to all 72,000 of our students and their families at no cost to them.

Research clearly demonstrates that students do better in school when their parents are actively involved in their education. To encourage this involvement, five years ago we launched the Guilford Parent Academy (GPA) — a comprehensive parent engagement program supported by federal Race to the Top money and community partners.

The GPA provides access to a large library of e-books for students and their families. We've also partnered with Connect with Kids to provide video content that helps parents support their children's learning. The videos cover topics such as how to build resilience in your child or how to help your child make healthy choices. We show these videos on our local cable TV station, and we also stream them on the GPA Web site.

In addition, we offer face-to-face workshops for parents on topics such as how to plan for college and homework help. To make sure all parents can benefit from these sessions — even those who might work two jobs, or who can't find the time to attend — we have a program called "GPA on the Go," in which we bring the workshops to parents at their job site. We've teamed up with more than 20 companies and organizations to offer the workshops at convenient times and locations. It's our way of reaching parents where they are, including workplace cafeterias during employees' lunch or dinner breaks.

With a staff of five employees serving 72,000 students and their families, the GPA program relies on a team of "parent liaisons" to help spread the word about our various initiatives. These parent volunteers are an extension of our office; they know how to reach out to other parents in ways we haven't thought of.

School districts often struggle to find volunteers who can take time out of their busy schedules to help out. To reduce the barriers to participating, we offer our parent liaisons a small cash incentive of up to $150 per month in exchange for their time. The program began with a grassroots parent coordinator at each middle school, and it has proven to be so successful that we have expanded it to every Title I school with the help of Title I money.

Our newest effort to help parents, and our most ambitious program to date, is the live online tutoring that is available 24-7 for a variety of subjects, from core content areas to topics such as economics and accounting. With this service, parents have the security of knowing that if their child is having trouble factoring an equation at 9 o'clock at night, and they don't know how to help, they can get an instant response. That's pretty powerful.

Supplied by a New York company called Brainfuse, the tutoring occurs through a live online chat session with a subject matter expert, and the platform includes a virtual whiteboard tool in which the tutor and student can work out a problem together. The tutors don't give students the answers; instead, they help students work through the problems on their own.

What's more, all live tutoring sessions are archived, so students can go back and watch them as many times as needed in order to understand.

We added this service last spring to go along with other academic resources that are part of an online portal, and we continue to see great success. In fact, we had set a goal of having 10,000 users sign up to access to our digital academic resources by January 2016 — and we exceeded this goal before the summer of 2015 even began.

Last spring, an independent evaluation confirmed that GPA is strengthening parent engagement in Guilford County significantly. The report showed that parent participation in district activities has increased each year since the program began.

The free online tutoring and the other GPA initiatives are part of our larger strategic plan to bolster parent engagement, because we know that greater parent engagement results in more student success. We're helping parents feel a sense of ownership over their children's education — helping parents and students succeed together both in school and in life.

About the Author

Lindsay Whitley is the director of the Guilford Parent Academy in Guilford County, N.C.