The coronavirus pandemic has posed unforeseen challenges for student learning, two Round Rock ISD students have worked to create a way to help students stay on top of their classwork.

In November, RRISD students Sarayu Kommuri and Anagha Sampath co-founded SparkED Round Rock, a new peer tutoring program. To date, more than 50 students have received tutoring from 40-plus student volunteers.

Kommuri and Sampath said the support from the greater RRISD community has been overwhelming.

“We really felt like it was our responsibility to step up and just support our community in times of crisis like this,” Sampath said.

The inspiration came when the two heard parents expressing concerns over their children’s learning experiences during COVID-19. During the pandemic, many students enrolled in online or hybrid in-person courses have struggled to retain and expand skills they learned before the pandemic, Kommuri said.

“One of the things parents really talked about is how students are struggling in class to stay focused, to concentrate on their work and to really connect with their teachers,” Kommuri said. “Since they’re not meeting face to face, they don’t really get a chance to talk to their teachers and really get to know that student-and-teacher relationship.”

SparkED Round Rock’s tutoring assistance mainly concentrates on grades 1-8, with second and seventh grades being the most common grade levels, Sampath said. In-demand subject areas include reading and writing, but lessons have also gone beyond academics to include crocheting and music lessons, Kommuri said.

Sampath and Kommuri said their student clientele is mostly composed of students enrolled in virtual learning. Through SparkED Round Rock, they said, they hope students will not only regain some of those previously learned skills, but also confidence in the work they are doing.

Beyond seeking higher-quality tutors for SparkED Round Rock, Kommuri and Sampath said they strive to find tutors interested in building personal relationships with their students, as tutors typically meet one-on-one with students to give them more individualized, customized lessons that meet students' specific needs.

“If you don’t [have a stable relationship with your student], you’re not going to be able to teach them and really connect to them in a way that they’re going to get something out of our program,” Sampath said.

Each tutoring session begins with a casual conversation, which the pair said serves as an opportunity for students to relax and feel more comfortable in advance of their lessons. Tutors end classes with online games or nonacademic activities so students also have the opportunity to mingle and relax.

While the program started in RRISD, SparkED Round Rock has expanded its reach and connected with students as far away as California and Minnesota, Kommuri said.

The goal for the program, Kommurri and Sampath said, is to keep growing while maintaining those personalized connections with students.

“We don’t want to teach them all new stuff,” Sampath said. “We want to get them [to be] better at what they already know.”