Connections Beyond the Classroom: GEAR UP Program in Alaska Yields Higher Test Scores and New Experiences

Cara Becker

Over the span of six weeks, students from Lower Kuskokwim School District in Alaska engaged in an enrichment program designed and customized by iTutor’s academic development team which provided students with new course material. While this GEAR UP initiative was created to help these students improve academically, which was demonstrated in the increase of their pre-test and post-test scores, educators and students gained insight into one another’s cultural differences rendering their exchanges an impactful learning experience for both educators and students. 

When students have positive interactions with teachers, they are more likely to grasp concepts and digest information. iTutor’s educators felt that they were able to connect with students through written assignments and discourse at the beginning and end of each session. According to Nick Bronson, NY State Certified Special Education teacher and iTutor educator from New York, the students in Alaska “were very curious about me and about the place where I lived, and the students I worked with were well behaved and receptive to my instruction.”

There was initial concern that working with students who were not accustomed to the “lower 48” culture might be an obstacle for iTutor educators to work through. Because of the cultural difference, students were initially shy, which made it challenging for educators to cultivate a connection with students at the start of the program. That is why iTutor educator and NY State Certified Elementary teacher Susan Moscheni began her sessions with a “meet and greet.” She and her students would discuss the time difference, the weather, their siblings, and their school day. Her effort and success in building rapport, despite the cultural difference, is proof that fostering relationships with students is an essential key to teaching as it aids to create a safe-space for students to learn and take risks.  NY State Certified Science and Math teacher, and iTutor educator Mark Lammey said, “The cultural difference actually allowed us even more of a connection as I utilized that fact as an opportunity for them to teach me things as well!”Bronson agreed. He came to know his students as thoughtful, family oriented, introspective, and surprisingly candid. But he felt that he only got to scratch the surface of their culture as he longed to learn more.

The Alaskan students who participated in this program naturally had to make adjustments to their academic norms and venture outside their learning comfort zone. Not only did they spend hours taking enrichment courses above their current level, but they also were unfamiliar with the technology, which resulted in some technological interruptions that were immediately addressed by iTutor’s tech support team. Nonetheless, students were very enthusiastic and eager to learn new material in a virtual classroom; they did not let any obstacles keep them from tackling the challenging work. Bronson added that Alaskan students had different perspectives and mentalities than many of the students in mainland US. They loved showcasing their new knowledge and were very engaged in the sessions. Moscheni shared that students especially loved the free time or game time she permitted at the end of their sessions.

Although iTutor educators spent most of the time instructing coursework, they also saw this experience as an opportunity to learn from the students. Bronson said, “I learned about the culture of indigenous populations in Alaska and saw how these students behaved academically as well as socially with each other.”

Lammey added that his students taught him different words in their native language in each session. “It was very cool.” For the educators, learning about the students’ culture was one of the most fascinating aspects of their interaction. Watching the students learn was also exciting and rewarding.

In all, the program was a success. The students not only gained in respect to their test scores and grade level equivalents–based on the data collected at onset and end of the program–but they also got to experience a new method of learning that helped to inspire their academic growth. 

For more about how iTutor supports GEAR UP initiatives, quantitative data from this program in Alaska, or how you can acquire a customized program for your students, visit iTutor-GEAR UP Headquarters

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