Tutoring program Grade A Plus goes virtual to help Columbia kids ‘learn to do well’

Local Columbia students in Grade A Plus, a free after-school mentoring and tutoring program, traveled to and toured countries like France, Italy and some to their hometowns in Korea this summer — virtually via Google Earth, of course.

Janice Dawson-Threat, a former University of Missouri professor, founded Grade A Plus in 2000 to provide free academic support and enrichment programs to Columbia youth ages 8 to 19. The community tutoring and mentoring program aims to provide support to at-risk populations for the purpose of leveling the playing field, Dawson-Threat said.

Grade A Plus is being honored with one of the inaugural Kindness in Business awards in the Kindness to Youth category. The awards recognize businesses and organizations that have shown and promoted kindness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn more about the Kindness in Business awards and meet the honorees.

From virtual city tours to learning how to grow and care for plants, Grade A Plus provided students with enrichment opportunities online throughout the summer amid the pandemic.

“We did a lot of fabulous things during the summer,” Dawson-Threat said, “and that guided us on how to build the returning program for fall.”

At the start of this school year, at 38 kids, the program has more enrolled in its tutoring program than ever before. Its biggest change is switching from offering tutoring two days a week to now four days a week. The program remains completely virtual, and it’s the little things like “hello hugs” from the kids that the tutors and staff miss most about being in-person. Tutors are undergraduate and graduate student volunteers from MU.

Dawson-Threat spoke with Missouri Business Alert about Grade A Plus and its response to the pandemic. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Janice Dawson-Threat

Missouri Business Alert: How does your organization try to embody kindness?

Janice Dawson-Threat: We strongly value the individual child. We believe every child can learn to do well. That’s our motto. We know that, as children, they’re open, they get excited about new information and seeing new things. And they give back to the tutors and to us with their smiles, their gleefulness and their energy upon receiving a sense of accomplishment and sense of success. And so it’s a give-and-take situation. Our tutors tell us they maybe had a long day or lots of studying to do for tests, but the minute those kids would run up to them, hug them and show them how happy they were that they were in attendance, all that fatigue would melt away.

MBA: What pivots did Grade A Plus have to make because of the pandemic?

JDT: We spent all of our spring break — the managers and myself, about 10 hours a day — to take our format from an on-site format into a virtual format. So, when spring break was over, we opened again right on time. Tuesday at 4:30 p.m., March 31. The struggle was for those children who did not have the technology at that point. Children in the fourth grade and below did not receive technology from the public schools system, and so we were borrowing laptops or they would have to wait for their parents to get home from work and turn on their personal laptop. Some would have to come to us on the phone.

Over the summer, we focused on preparation for the school year, and we also did the neatest, fun stuff. Our kids helped build the program over the summer, and it was so great that, because we couldn’t send our kids to summer camp as we normally would do in July, we ran our own summer camp. We had a dance club. We learned how to grow plants. We taught the scientific method. We did virtual tours. That was the most fun. We went to France. We went to Italy. We went to San Francisco. We built a tremendous list.

For fall, we went to four days a week. We had never offered tutoring services for four days before. We opened on Sept. 15 and had 38 children enrolled. We’ve never had that many children at the start of a program before, and that’s before grades have come out. So it’s been spectacular.

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