Nevada’s students are becoming makeshift teachers

That should instill hope—not take it away.

Given that our state consistently clocks in at 49th or 50th in the nation for K-12 education outcomes, the potential impacts of Covid-19 on Nevada’s school system have led many parents, educators, and students to worry for the future. Those who have sounded the alarm aren’t wrong to do so; while it’s too early to have good data on Covid’s effects on Nevada’s students, nationwide research has linked Covid-prompted distance learning to the worsening of academic outcomes, widening of achievement gaps along lines of class, and increases in absenteeism and mental health issues among K-12 students. But you already knew that—or if you didn’t, you probably could have guessed it. It’s not a bad story to tell. We should talk about the many shortcomings of our system. 

But I’m tired of talking about Covid kids like we’re a reason to lose hope. So I’m here to tell you a different story: the story of how with very little experience and no money, my peers and I built an effective youth-led tutoring organization that helped to mitigate the distance learning challenges that cause so many adults in our lives to lose hope for the future. 

At the start of the pandemic, I was a high school junior in Reno, Nevada. Concerned for our own safety and that of immunocompromised family members, my family went into full lockdown. My parents grocery shopped occasionally, wearing full PPE; my younger sister and I made the transition to full distance learning, which I would do for the rest of my high school career. I was raised to be a doer—my mom works on domestic violence issues and my dad writes about environmental justice activism—but from within the four walls I was growing to despise, it felt like there was little to do. In 2020, during a moment of profound social change, I desperately wanted to do something (anything!) to make something (anything!) better. I turned to my own community of students in northern Nevada. 

I knew kids were struggling to stay afloat because I was one of them. As a full distance learner with mental health issues, keeping my entire education in my laptop was in many ways a worst case scenario. I struggled to wake up on time for classes, keep track of deadlines, and find the motivation to attend at all. If I was floundering as a seventeen-year-old with considerable financial and social privilege, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be a first or second grader with parents who couldn’t be home during the day. You don’t know a lot about yourself in high school, but I knew I loved teaching. I wondered if tutoring could make a difference in the community, even within the bounds of necessary Covid precautions. 

My organization started as a text message, sent to five or six friends who were also in high school. “If I started a tutoring service online, would you be down to help?” When they all said yes, I decided to run with my idea and kicked into gear. I created a website for what I called Reno Alliance for Free Tutoring (RAFT), including a page for general information and a tutor application. I posted a link on my personal social media, encouraging friends to join me in tutoring (“you can choose the age, subject, and time!”). I sent out texts and emails to every student I knew. 

I was awestruck by the response. People I hadn’t talked to since elementary school responded to my posts and applied to teach in their favorite subjects. Local businesses posted my flyers. Coordinators at the libraries I’ve used since I was a kid contacted me to ask how they could help. Before I knew it, I had accepted and begun onboarding fifty, sixty, seventy high schoolers from across northern Nevada to tutor. Many needed volunteer hours, or resume experiences, or to boost their college applications (and these are all good reasons to do something!), but even more told me that they, like I, felt cooped up and helplessly unhelpful. They saw a community in crisis and wanted to make a difference. All it took was to ask. 

Remote schooling session- image: cc 2.0

Within a month of officially launching Reno Alliance for Free Tutoring, we were accepting students in grades 1-8. I soon brought on a team of peer leaders—high-school-aged directors—who became effective administrators of the program. We worked diligently to match students to tutors with compatible hours, fields of focus, and styles of teaching. Our tutors began guiding homework help sessions over Zoom throughout the week, providing much needed academic support entirely free of charge. As these tutors racked up experience and volunteer hours, the program continued to grow. I saw my STEM-focused peers light up explaining math and science to elementary and middle schoolers. Old friends from band camp became excellent writing and social studies tutors. Friends of friends interviewed to lead the program. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. How had all of this come together while I had barely left the house?

Raft Team Picture – image: courtesy of Hannah Branch

I learned the most about the impact of direct action like RAFT through my consultation meetings with parents. One parent told me she had recently experienced a Covid-related death in the family, asking if I could schedule our next meeting around the funeral. Another told me about how her son, who had ADHD, had been disciplined for fidgeting in classrooms. She explained that he was at best ignored and at worst ostracized at school—and that was before Covid. In a moment I’ll never forget, the student’s tutor unmuted his mic and added softly that he, too, has ADHD, and remembered being punished for it. “I hope we’ll be good for each other,” the tutor said. Although we were connected only on a screen, the student’s mother and I both choked back tears. From stories of unimaginable adversity came rare moments of connection, support, and hope.

When I left for college at UNR, I handed off the organization to a group of talented high schoolers whose work I greatly admire. The program is still running, and I am continually in awe of the many ways Nevada’s youth show up for each other.

I am not naive to the limits of activism in a system plagued with structural inefficacy and inequity. Nevada’s families have every reason to be scared and concerned. As a young woman and organizer, I cycle through these feelings regularly. But no matter what you’re feeling, I implore you not to lose hope. Because when I think of RAFT, I don’t think of the crises that sparked it. I don’t think about the many discouraging stories of our education system coming up short for the families who need it most. I don’t think about Nevada’s abysmal educational rankings or the harrowing projections that one can extrapolate from Covid-era education, although these things absolutely matter. 

Remote learning, cc 2.0

Instead, I think of the way dozens of kids chose to be guiding lights for each other in a time of unimaginable darkness. I think of the thousands of hours of support my community has passed down to the next generation of learners—and the fact that they do it out of the goodness of their hearts. I think of the friends I made while tutoring over Zoom who I now invite for pizza on a Saturday night. I think of the students who showed up for weekly meetings with a smile, never blind to the crises happening around them, but filled with excitement about the story they were writing or the Legos they were building. 

I can imagine few things more hopeful than these.

Hannah Branch is a sophomore at the University of Nevada, UNR, where she is majoring in political science and English and minoring in debate. Hannah discovered a love for community building as a young teen activist in Reno; she is the founder of the educational organization Reno Alliance for Free Tutoring and co-founder of the anti-racism group Washoe County Students for Change. Hannah enjoys engaging with local politics and has worked in communications and grassroots organizing for several local campaigns. She now works at the UNR Writing and Speaking Center, where she supports students of all majors in improving their writing skills.

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