Amid pandemic, new Bruin Tutor Network steps up to help students in need
500 UCLA students volunteer to provide vital academic support to K-12 students across L.A. County

September 17, 2020
Originally featured in the
UCLA Newsroom


As schools across Los Angeles County transitioned from the classroom to online distance learning amid the pandemic this spring, the change was easier for families with reliable access to the internet and computers, schools with modern technology, and teachers with the instructional skills to use it.

In low-income and under-resourced neighborhoods, the pandemic ripped the cover off of the educational inequities that have too long plagued public schools. Many students lacked access to the internet and technological devices needed to access instruction, schools and teachers struggled to connect with students, and too many children lacked a safe and supportive place to study.

These problems were multiplied for the thousands of children living in foster care and the many others whose parents or caregivers are on the front lines of the pandemic as essential workers. As the summer wore on, stories of wealthier families organizing “learning pods” or “micro-schools,” or hiring private tutors for their children only underscored the inequities.

“The coronavirus pandemic has made all too clear what we have known for a long time — children of color, children in living in poverty, and children in foster care are often disadvantaged significantly in school,” said Tyrone Howard, Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Education to Strengthen Children & Families at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the director of the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.

“Students with resources changed from seats in the classrooms to seats in front of a 30-inch color computer screen with high-speed internet access. Underserved children were left to use the wireless network outside Taco Bell on an old iPhone, with little connection to their schools and minimal guidance at home because their caregivers are essential workers, and cannot provide the academic support they need,” Howard said. “It’s not right, and it’s not fair. We need to do more to help students and families, especially those in foster care who already confront numerous inequities.”

Enter UCLA and a band of 500-plus dedicated students who make up the Bruin Tutor Network, who this fall will work online at least one hour a week with students across Los Angeles County helping children in schools from Lancaster to South Los Angeles, with math, reading and writing and other subjects. Tutoring services are also available in Spanish and everything is free.

Help is for more than children 

The Bruin Tutor Network is also helping caregivers understand how to best help children learn online. In addition to the tutoring, there are online resources to help students and caregivers.

As students across Los Angeles County head back to school largely online this fall, the UCLA students will serve as tutors for 300 K-12 students across the region. And the hope is that the program will grow.

“The need is so great,” said Monique Corral, a UCLA postdoctoral fellow who manages the project with the UCLA Pritzker Center. “Requests for tutoring come in every day to help children in foster care.”

To help meet these needs, Corral has been working with three UCLA undergraduate students, Brittney Hun, Flor Ramirez and Leah Pinedo and other colleagues at the UCLA Pritzker Center to reach out to faculty and staff, and leaders of organizations across campus, asking them to help recruit students to serve as volunteer tutors.

“Our undergraduate team has done an amazing job and the response from the UCLA community has just been tremendous,” Corral said.

One area of Los Angeles County where students faced significant challenges amid the pandemic is Lancaster. The region, located in the Antelope Valley, has a large number of students in foster care and many children and families who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurities.

In fact, the Bruin Tutor Network has its origin story there. In a conversation this past spring, Jordan Goines, director of special programs in the Lancaster School District told Howard that many families were struggling to help their children as schools moved to distance learning. He wanted to know if UCLA students might be able to offer tutoring in academic subjects and guidance for caregivers on distance learning

Howard asked students in his Education 130 class, which explores race, class and inequality in education, if they were willing to volunteer an hour a week. More than 100 students said they would. And with that response, with the support of the UCLA Pritzker Center, the Bruin Tutoring Network was born.

To serve as a volunteer tutor, UCLA students can complete an application online. New tutors are needed daily, and are provided with an orientation, training and other resources for their work with the children.

“It was so easy to sign up and get connected with a family,” said Adriana Rodriguez, who is volunteering as a tutor. “I had mentors and access to tutors growing up and wanted to give back during this trying time. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but the family has been so appreciative. It’s only an hour per week helping with math, but it is so rewarding for them and me.”

It takes a dedicated network of support

The Bruin Tutor Network has been reaching out to community partners including the Lancaster School District, the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, the L.A. County Department of Health Services, Children’s Law Center and other organizations such as the Children’s Institute, Children’s Bureau and Para Los Niños to promote the network to K-12 students and caregivers in need of support. The UCLA Pritzker Center and the tutoring network are also coordinating with those organizations and others to provide other resources and referrals, including food banks, legal aid, mental health services, immigration advocacy and more.

To participate in the Bruin Tutor Network, caregivers fill out a short online application providing information about the children in their care and their needs. The applications are reviewed by the UCLA Pritzker Center team and applicants are matched and linked with a tutor.

Elisa, who asked not to give her last name, learned about the Bruin Tutor Network from a social worker at a local nonprofit while participating in a parent support program for Latino parents of young children. She has two girls, Sophie, aged 9 and in the fourth grade, and Carly, 10, who is in the fifth grade. She asked for a tutor to help them with their math and their reading comprehension.

Carly and Sophie were each paired with their own tutor — current UCLA students, Ashley and Jamie. They have been working with the girls since the beginning of the summer. Elisa describes Ashley and Jamie as muy amable, kind, patient and responsible. She says that they are very responsive, and take the time to teach Carly and Sophie and answer their questions. Sophie eagerly awaits her Friday afternoon Zoom sessions with Jamie and gets herself ready to go on her computer in anticipation of working with her. As a birthday gift, Jamie even gave Sophie two books, which she mailed to her, and they have used in their tutoring sessions. Elisa says she has seen Carly improve in math — working with Ashley on multiplication, division and fractions, and when working on her schoolwork. Elisa is thrilled the UCLA students will continue tutoring Carly and Sophie this fall.

Early results are encouraging

Remote learning is new to many students and some have struggled. As schools continue distance learning amid the pandemic, students need individualized instruction. The Bruin Tutoring Network is helping to meet this need in what are admittedly difficult circumstances.

“Our tutors have been incredible, they have really risen to the challenge,” Corral said. “We have received very positive feedback from caregivers and it has been encouraging to hear about the important work the tutors are doing and the impact they’re having on their students.

“They are not only helping to support students’ academic and learning needs, but as current college students, they are serving as caring role models. In these trying pandemic times we find ourselves in, the Bruin Tutor Network is making a difference,” she said.

This fall, the UCLA Pritzker Center is working to expand and strengthen the program, hoping to serve more students and improve learning opportunities.

“The UCLA Bruin Tutor Network is a hopeful response by the UCLA Pritzker Center and UCLA Community to provide some of our most vulnerable families and children the academic support they need,” Howard said. “At a time when learning pods, private tutoring, and academic camps are readily available for some students, the generosity, concern, and care demonstrated by UCLA students for those less fortunate is a breath of fresh air in the quest for educational equity. We have an amazing team at the UCLA Pritzker Center that has been incredible in responding to this moment.”