Stephen Mirabello, 17, of Washington, D.C., a senior at School Without Walls High School, developed a free online tutoring program that has helped more than 100 K-5 students in 11 elementary schools maintain and build on their reading skills during the COVID-19 pandemic. “After the pandemic halted in-person learning,” said Stephen, “I was concerned about the negative impact on children’s reading skills, particularly among minority, low-income and younger students.” Having worked for a few years with a national volunteer tutoring organization, he knew that personal tutoring by high school students could be very beneficial for struggling young readers. Since the D.C. government has provided free computers to students from low-income households to support virtual learning, and many of his peers were looking for productive ways to spend the summer, Stephen formulated a plan to launch the “D.C. Virtual Story Time Program.”
After soliciting advice from his faculty advisor and members of his school’s reading club, he asked local elementary school principals and PTAs to identify interested families, and then began recruiting fellow high school students to serve as tutors. Soon they were working with youngsters one-on-one during 35-minute reading sessions in either English or Spanish via Zoom, using e-books from the D.C. Public Library. During these sessions, the kids read aloud, answered comprehension questions, and chatted with their tutors about their books. The summer program was so successful that Stephen decided to continue with fall, winter and spring extensions. So far, more than 100 high schoolers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have conducted over 1,600 tutoring sessions, and report that their young students are reading with more skill, frequency and enjoyment. “One hundred percent of parents surveyed said they would recommend the program to other parents in the future,” said Stephen.