Hill Learning Center continuing to provide tutors

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ORANGE COUNTY, N.C. — Nearly half a million dollars in new funding will help North Carolina students from low-income families strengthen their reading skills. The money will support Hill Learning Center, which offers academic support to kids.

According to the center, public schools operate under a staffing model that assumes just 3-5% of students will need intensive (Tier 3) instruction. In schools with high populations of students living in poverty and learning English as a second language, that percentage is higher, which leaves a gap and inequitable access to intervention. But the Hill Learning Center is trying to fill that gap.

One program that the center offers is their literacy intervention tutoring program. The program uses RAP, a digital learning platform, that supports teachers during the sessions. The center partners with different schools to provide this resource for their students. Donations and school emergency relief funds, or ESSER funding, paid for the tutors in the past. But now that the center has received this new funding, it will allow for the center to sustain and expand the program.

“We are so fortunate that the Hill Center is right in our backyard here in Orange County Schools,” Mariah Morris, Orange County Schools director of literacy, said. “The Hill Center is really that gold standard for early literacy intervention and foundational skills intervention.”

The center is now bringing tutors to teach in small groups at four schools in Orange County and two charter schools in Durham. Funding comes at a crucial time as ESSER funding will end in September. If they did not get this funding, the center was not sure if they could sustain this program going forward, despite the great need and demand from their school partners.

“These are students who have been struggling,” Beth Anderson, Hill Learning Center’s executive director, said. “They have not been thriving in school and suddenly we hear stories of them raising their hand, of them reading their first book, of them going home to their parents and taking a book home with them for the first time; and it’s those stories that excite us and keep us going.”

Morris said COVID-19 pandemic interruptions in learning brought special challenges to students, and a lot of those challenges were with the success of their foundational literacy skills. Morris said their schools are still seeing the effects of all of that in 2024 and their schools are having to go back and fill those foundational literacy gaps from an earlier age.

“A lot of those challenges are with the success of their foundational literacy skills. When students left school for remote learning, a lot of them had to learn their foundational literacy skills through a computer screen, which is not best practice,” Morris said.

Elizabeth Dear is one tutor that works with the center and is happy to hear they were awarded this funding. She’s been doing Hill training for over a decade.

Dear worked as a speech pathologist for years, but then she learned she had another passion.

“Pretty soon I realized that if children couldn’t read anything that I taught them or improved their speech and language skills, they still were not going to be successful without those reading skills,” Dear said.

“They have made huge amounts of growth in all areas, in word reading, fluency, comprehension, ability to write answers to questions,” Dear said. “Because of their reading skills increasing, then their self-esteem goes up, their sense of competence, and I think that affects so many things.”

Being able to partner with the schools can meet the students where they are. We’re told it may not be easy for every kid to get to the Hill Learning Center. There can be financial, logistical and transportation barriers.

The state grant will pay for tutoring through the end of the 2024-2025 school year. The center plans to apply for another state grant to sustain and expand the program beyond that.

Spectrum News 1 reached out to some school districts across the state to get more information on how the sunset of ESSER funding in Sept. 2024 will affect them.

In a statement, Orange County Schools told us, “Programs augmented by ESSER funds in recent years may be scaled back in the future. For instance, approx. $1,000,000 went to fund FY24 summer programming for grades not covered by Read To Achieve legislation. In this and related cases, some expanded intervention programs will end with ESSER unless they are accounted for in the local budget request.”

Orange County Schools also added, “Finally, district leaders carefully examined department budgets to redirect funding to measurably effective programs and products in the FY25 budget request. Ultimately, the district’s ability to provide programs in an expansion budget request depends on local funding from county commissioners.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is making adjustments as well. They told us their current budget includes $190 million of ESSER funds that will expire in September. The district has realigned their budget for that impact.

CMS said, “The district made budgeting decisions that understood these funds were temporary and therefore planned the budget accordingly. Certainly, there will be an impact but the district has reviewed our funding sources and prioritized our funding to endure the most effective strategies and expenses were continued.”

In the meantime, Guilford County Schools has been using some of that ESSER funding for tutors, like Orange County Schools. They said in order to ensure its program continues, they included this as a priority in their 2024-2025 legislative agenda, asking state lawmakers for more funding.