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Episode 2: Step Up Tutoring with Daniel Halper

Step Up Tutoring is a non-profit organization formed during the pandemic to deliver free, online tutoring. Since inception, Step Up Tutoring has served over 800 students and received over 3,000 tutor volunteer applications. Step Up Tutoring’s mission is to innovate and scale free online tutoring for families who cannot afford private tutoring, while providing mentorship and emotional support for students. 

The following transcript has been redacted and edited for quality and educational purposes.  

Miriam [01:40] 

How was Step Up Tutoring formed? Who makes up the team? 

Daniel [01:50]  

Step Up Tutoring, is an organization that was really born out of the pandemic. During the pandemic, obviously schools were closed indefinitely. There was all this anxiety going around and you had this huge initiative to move schooling online. Schools were providing students with Chromebooks, high speed internet, and this made it a possibility. Austin Beutner, the superintendent of LAUSD at the time, wanted to create a program to support students that were going through this really rough time. I got involved immediately. I was home during the pandemic last summer. I was a rising senior at the time, and I was reading about how students in these under-resourced communities were really struggling. It was all over the place and I just knew they weren’t going to get the one-on-one attention they needed. I personally love this area, and I think it’s such an important thing to tackle. I wanted to get involved immediately because of this great initiative – that LAUSD had provided the Chromebooks, the high-speed internet, really the tools to make it happen.  

Miriam [03:11]  

Who is a part of the team? LAUSD is the 2nd largest school district in the country, how were you able to get set up so quickly? How did that partnership begin?  

Daniel [03:30]  

The superintendent of LAUSD really allowed us to fast track our MOU. We started expanding rapidly. We got new onboarding facilitators. We got tutor experience managers, we got people on board that were just as passionate about it as us. And we got tons of volunteers. Everyone just wanted to help and be part of this.  

Miriam [05:20]  

Can you describe a little bit more about the tutor demographics. What are their ages? How long do they tutor?  

Daniel [05:35]  

Our tutors range in age. We have 16 year olds that are now applying. We have my grandma who’s in her early 80s. We have a lot of young college aged kids that are working with our program. We find that we have a great demographic because they’re super passionate, excited, just great people to work as mentors with these kids and that they really have that college education that we’re trying to inspire within these kids. So, it’s a great model. We also have a lot of retired teachers. We have really anybody. We haven’t found a demographic that this hasn’t worked with. All the demographics that we’ve worked with, have done our program and stayed with us since the beginning.  

Miriam [06:57]  

Are you working with other school districts beyond LAUSD?  

Daniel [07:00]  

We’re not, but we are in the middle of expanding. LAUSD has been an awesome partner. We feel that we’re going to continue fostering that relationship and we are going to continue to expand there, but we’re also expanding outside LAUSD. We are talking to districts around the country and within California to find other partners that will also support our growth.  

Miriam [07:26]  

Now that students are back in person, how has that changed the organization’s model if, at all?  

Daniel [07:34]  

It’s definitely had an impact. We are definitely thinking about how we pivot this a bit so that it’s going to be as effective as possible. We’ve found that tutoring still works. It’s a little bit less focused on homework as a lot of kids come back from their after-school programs and they actually don’t have homework to do with their tutor. We’re going to be putting even more of a focus on the mentorship side of our program, which is just as big of a deal within these kids’ lives. They’re really struggling emotionally. The other way that we’re making a slight pivot is through our partnership with after-school programs. So actually, having a partnership with the after-school program that will facilitate this online tutoring within their program. There are awesome afterschool programs that currently do homework help and work with kids, but they don’t necessarily allow for the one-on-one tutoring support that we are providing.  

Miriam [08:22] 

You mentioned mentorship, how does the mentorship component fit in. What is a session like? Can you describe a little bit about what that experience is for you as a tutor mentor?  

Daniel [08:30]  

Absolutely. Tutoring for me has been the highlight of my week pretty consistently. I work with this kid, Jaden, and we’ve been working since the start. We got matched together I think in August, maybe early September and have been meeting every single week, twice a week. Through that time, we’ve built a relationship that goes way past just me being sort of an academic supporter. I’ve learned about his desire to become an NFL star, his interests, and what subjects he really loves.  I’ve seen him really develop over the past year and a half. And I understand where he’s coming from. I’ve seen him grow and I understand his passions, what he wants to do when he gets older, and I’ve helped him work towards those goals. I know it’s early, but I’ve really found that the relationship with him has developed so much past just online tutoring. It’s been becoming a mentor and we really do that within our program because we don’t just focus on academics.  

The first 15 minutes is working on relationship building, goal setting, mentorship and SEL. And then we do about 30 minutes of homework help or just curriculum-based learning. Whatever he’s learning in class, whether it’s math or English, we support that curriculum and then the rest of the time, we play a fun academic game. There are a million things that we do, but it’s all sort of these planned lessons that make it really easy to facilitate.  

Miriam [12:20]  

For someone that has never had experience teaching or being in education, what are some ways they can get involved? What is that experience like? Do you have any experience in education?  

Daniel [12:40]  

I definitely came in with probably more experience than the average tutor, but I’m by no means a professional educator. We’ve really tried to make this experience extremely simple for our tutors. First off, they are getting a lot of good training to really get them started. But once they have gone through onboarding, we are there to make sure that the lessons are going well and the student is learning and it’s a productive session. And the way we really do that again is through our pedagogy and platform. So that is a place where our tutors go to find resources that really work for that student. They are based on grade level. They’re based on students’ interests. They’re based on whether that student needs homework help or not. There’s very little need for a lot of tutoring background because we have so much of these resources in place that makes it really easy. And a lot of these resources are walking the student through it, with the tutor being there as almost a mediator and facilitator to make it happen.  

To go a little bit into my personal experiences, I started off really working with kids and especially working with this demographic at Camp Harmony. It’s a sleepaway camp where my friends and I would go every year for about a week. We’d work with kids that are from homeless shelters and we really learned more of the mentorship side of things. And I then started working at a preschool council once I went to Stanford. So that was something I did for a year where twice a week we’d go into this local preschool in East Palo Alto, which is also a pretty under-resourced community, and we would work with them on math and English. Then I also worked as an assistant teacher during my gap year at KIPP School. I also taught, over the summer in 2019, at WISE Readers to Leaders. In that program. I was actually a lead teacher for 16 kids, and that was quite a tough experience; I really sympathize with teachers just going through that. But yeah, it’s definitely been a journey and it’s really helped me see where students are coming from. And I understand that like my education, coming from a private school in West L.A., is just incomparable to the education that a lot of these kids have gotten and are getting within public schools or even charter schools, just based on the fact that the class sizes are so much bigger. There are not as many resources. A lot of students are dealing with emotional issues that make it harder for the rest of the class to be focused. It’s really tough.  

Miriam [15:50] 

Thank you for sharing your experience. I can see why you’re passionate about education and your experience really lends itself to start this organization. Now that you’re out of school and you have this experience as a co-founder of Step Up Tutoring, what’s next for you and for the organization? What are you excited about?  

Daniel [16:10]  

There are a few things that we’re working on that are, to me, extremely exciting. First off, we are working on the school expansion program, so expanding beyond LAUSD to any district within the country. We are working under the Step Up in a box model where we are setting conditions, we’re setting our program standards and we decide and schools ultimately decide if they’re the right partner for us; it’s really a model that’s going to allow us to scale at the level we need to. That’s one part of it.  

Another part is the onsite online partnerships that we’re working on with after-school programs. So that’s a whole other thing where we’re trying to get school districts to get us involved with their after-school programs where we can actually work with the kids while they’re in school. One of the things that’s on the top of my mind is the mentorship side of things. We are in the middle of developing an app that’s more of a fun game for kids to express their emotions, to learn about their emotions, to be able to identify emotions. And that, to me, is probably the most exciting thing I’m currently working on because I believe in it so strongly. I think kids need an outlet. They need to have really fun, engaging school curriculum within the schools, and that’s really the goal of this.  

Miriam [17:57]  

Yes, definitely. That is a huge topic, especially in school settings – how do they support students’ mental health and social emotional well-being. It’s great to hear Step Up Tutoring is at the forefront of creating these experiences. 

Miriam [22:58] 

How does Step Up Tutoring help bridge the gap between parent and family members that have little knowledge about technology and how do they get connected with the resources and services that Step Up Tutoring offers, especially a family whose first language is not English? 

Daniel [23:20]  

That’s been a big part of our development to make sure that parents that don’t have great knowledge about technology, that may not have their own computer, that might not really be able to speak English, that their student is paired with an English-speaking tutor.  We have fliers that have both languages and really explain the process in depth. We try to keep it super simple. We have them apply on our website, choose which teacher they’re working with, and once they’ve applied, there’s a Spanish application and English application. We match them with the tutor that either speaks Spanish, or some of the other languages, so our parents are comfortable using a translation app.  

We are building a portal where that messaging is completely automatic. If they’re speaking or writing their text in English, it’s going to come to that parent in Spanish. It keeps that easy communication between the tutor and the parent pretty seamless. And we are doing our best ultimately to make sure parents that are not tech enabled are taken care of in the best way they can be. We basically call every single one of them. We have someone that’s entirely dedicated to that, to calling parents, walking them through it in Spanish and supporting them in all their needs.  

Miriam [25:45]  

Daniel, can you explain a little bit more about your role in Step Up Tutoring and what are you most involved in?  

Daniel [25:55]  

I’m most involved in our process development and our technology. We have 100,000 automations that are running each month. So those are things that are sending emails to tutors reminding them about onboarding or moving them within our backend database or sending out marketing messages to people who have shown interest or sending out text reminders or responsiveness checks to parents. We have a million things that are constantly happening to make sure that our process is as easy as possible for the people that want to get involved and to be able to scale. And we have a lot of oversight that needs to be done on that. Also, just working on figuring out changes to our onboarding, figuring out changes to our tutor experience, to our parent experience, so that we can make our experience as easy as possible for people.  

The other thing I’m working on is our technology. We have a tutor and onboarding portal for tutors to go through our process within one singular Web app that doesn’t require multiple sources of communication and that we’re pretty confident is going to allow us to scale to a lot more people and make our onboarding success rates significantly higher.  

The other thing we’re working on is our pedagogy platform for facilitating sessions. We are working on trying to customize our lesson plans based on a student’s interest. It’s actually linked to their application. It’s linked to all information that the tutor and student submit, and we create lesson plans that the tutor can choose from, and that we believe are best suited for that student based on their interests, based on why they signed up for tutoring – whether that’s mentorship, whether that’s tutoring support and homework help, whether that is extracurricular support, like learning something that maybe isn’t just based on their math and English skills. It’s been a process, but this is also coming together really well and I think is going to take us to the next level. We’re not just a nonprofit, we’re not just a tutoring company, we really want to be a tech company. We want to be extremely tech enabled. We want to give our infrastructure, our platforms to other people as well.  

Miriam [29:14]  

That’s awesome. You mentioned that one of the goals is to scale. What is that scale and what are your hopes for Step Up Tutoring?  

Daniel [29:23]  

My end goal, my end hope, is that we are supporting every single kid that can’t afford private tutoring or private mentorship. Anything that’s really going to support these kids, that’s obviously way in the future. Our goals within the next five years are to be supporting 25,000 students, which I think is more than reasonable at our current growth rate. I want to expand across the whole nation within the next five years. I think it is really important to be a national organization. There are so many school districts across the country that are in similar situations where the majority of kids are coming from low-income communities and they don’t have enough resources, they don’t have a program like us to step in and support them. They need something like Step Up Tutoring.  

Miriam [30:36]  

For our listeners and anyone who wants to get involved with Step Up Tutoring or wants to help, what are some ways they can help?  

Daniel [30:48]  

They can apply to tutor. That’s one thing that is pretty straightforward. It’s two hours a week. You’re working with one student, you’re going to be working as a mentor, a tutor. That’s just a quick application that you do on our website,  

The other thing you can do is work on an intern basis or volunteer in a different role than a tutor. We are constantly looking to scale up our team. The vast majority of our team are volunteers that are putting in 10 hours a week to really enable us to grow in scale. If you want any role, if you’re interested in being on our operations team, if you’re interested in tech and being a part of our development team, which is also entirely volunteers, if you’re interested in working within our interviewing team, we have a million places where we could use awesome people to be part of our program. The last thing you can do, which is debatably the most important at this point, is donate. We need more funding. And if you have five dollars to spare, that would be great. Anything, any support that you can really put in to Step Up Tutoring is going to help make the difference. It allows us to go to one more kid, get one more tutor to do the things we need to do to help change the world.  

Miriam [32:20]  

Okay, Daniel one last question. What do you hope both tutors and students take away from their experience with Step Up Tutoring?  

Daniel [32:30]  

I really believe what we want people to take out of this experience is a meaningful relationship, where they’re going to learn about another person, understand how to help them, and really create that long term relationship where they can get them out of poverty. They can get them into college, make that difference for them. It’s very much about that relationship. We think that’s absolutely vital.