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Stories of Promising Practice - All Means All - Peer Tutoring Full Story

Colorado's stories of promising practices
Colorado's stories of promising practices

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Boulder Valley School District - Southern Hills Middle School 

Grace and Gracie make a great team.

When Grace has a question for her teacher but can’t find the words, Gracie is there, helping find the right phrase for her friend.

When questions on the worksheet given out to the sixth-grade science class are too difficult, Gracie is quick to put them in terms that Grace will understand. When the assignment calls for students to draw a picture of an atom, for example, Gracie understands that drawing isn’t Grace’s forte and works with the teacher to help Grace make a model of an atom out of art materials.

“It is great to help her and watch her learn,” said Gracie Paul, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Southern Hills Middle School in the Boulder Valley School District who is one of dozens of peer tutors at the school.

The program pairs students with disabilities with nondisabled peers for one period to help them access grade-level content in the general education classroom. The practice allows schools to increase the inclusion of special education students into the general ed classroom.

Map of Denver Metro area schools with Boulder highlighted.

Gracie works with Grace Angulo, a 12-year-old sixth-grader who happens to have Down syndrome. In the second period science class, the two sit side-by-side at a table with Gracie and Grace working together throughout the class. Gracie makes sure that Grace has what she needs to be prepared for the class and supports the teacher to prepare lessons so that Grace has better access to them.  

Southern Hills Middle School had the district’s first peer tutoring program, a practice that helps schools increase the inclusion of special education students into the general ed classroom. The nine-year-old program has grown into one of the most sought after electives among Southern Hills’ seventh- and eighth-graders.

“At this point in time it is so threaded into the fabric and culture of our school,” said Diana Rutenberg, the school psychologist who helped set up the program that has spread to seven middle schools and is being added as a credit for high schools.

An analysis shows the schools in BVSD that offer peer tutoring have a greater percentage of students with disabilities being included in general ed classrooms. Specifically, 86.7% of students with disabilities in peer tutoring schools spend the majority of their days in general education classrooms. The overall district percentage is 84.5% and the statewide percentage is 75.5%.

Historically, the separation of students with disabilities from their non-disabled peers has contributed to inequitable access to education that is aligned with state standards. For many, the act of including students with disabilities in the general education classroom with appropriate supports is both a moral and educational priority.

In addition, inclusion provides increased access to high quality educational opportunities that may not be available in special education classrooms.

“Oftentimes when kids and sometimes adults see something that is unknown they kind of approach that with fear and resistance and just avoidance,” said Matt McKay, a math teacher at Southern Hills. “Instead this program brings all of our kids together on the same level. It is an inclusive mindset here. It’s an inclusive place. Everybody’s a sixth-grader. I really think it just helps our kids see that we are all one – a sixth grade class and seventh grade class.”

Southern Hills Middle School

Southern Hills Middle School has one of the district’s Intensive Learning Center programs for students with multi-intensive needs. Several years ago, and just prior to the implementation of the peer tutoring program, cuts to district funding led to shifts in the allocation of resources. As a result, the ability to sustain resource-level paraprofessionals, adults who are not licensed teachers who work closely with students with disabilities, was not seen to be viable.

Rutenberg, the school psychologist, along with Peter Kingsley, her colleague and former special education teacher, heard about peer tutoring during a BVSD workshop presented by Richard Villa, a renowned expert on inclusive education. They were intrigued at the idea of having students being the ones to help engage their peers in learning, especially at a time when resources to support students with disabilities were changing. The principal gave them the go-ahead. To develop the program, she relied on a book on peer tutoring published by the PEAK Parent Center in Colorado Springs.  

“BVSD’s priority is ensuring equal access and equity to education for all students,” she said. “This program fosters and forwards the missions and goals of BVSD by fostering that inclusive environment to ensure all students have access to the core curriculum and electives in the least restrictive environment.”

In the program’s first year, Rutenberg had to cajole students into signing up for the elective to be peer tutors by hosting parties with donuts and pizza. But now the program is among the most popular electives offered at the school with nearly 40 peer tutors signed up.  The program now seamlessly recruits itself.

Peer tutors are in every class – from core curriculum classes such as math, language arts, social studies and science to elective classes. Peer tutors meet weekly or bi-weekly with teachers to discuss their goals and methods. They keep weekly journals and have ongoing conversations with the general education or special education teacher about what type of assistance is needed.

“Obviously, it is individualized by what is the tutee working on … and what level of skill do they need,” she said. “Are we looking at facilitating communication in social interactions, or are we really focused on answering comprehension questions or increasing independence on on-task behaviors?”

For the general education teacher, the peer tutors help alleviate some of the pressure of working with one specific student.

“It allows the student who is paired up with a peer tutor to continue working just as they would but getting that additional help so they don’t have to wait for that individualized attention from their classroom teacher,” Rutenberg said. “This is a general education support. This is not a special education support. That is one of the magical parts of this program. The peer tutor on an ongoing basis is able to help accommodate or modify or adjust the learning that is happening in the classroom so the student can access the curriculum and really gain greater access to academic and social skills.”

Seeing kids working with other kids who may have disabilities is now the norm in Southern Hills.

“There is no type of stigma attached,” Rutenberg said. “By promoting an inclusive educational environment, we are showing students that this sort of mimics society. And there are social benefits that are gained for both the students with and without disabilities. The most meaningful feedback I have heard from peer tutors is that this is their favorite class of the day. Just because someone doesn’t communicate the way that I do doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to say.”