By: Antonio B. Boyd
COVID-19 and Community Learning Hubs
According to the After School Alliance, as the pandemic swept across the country, disrupting school, upending students’ and families’ lives, and exponentially increasing demand for food and well-being supports, school districts, afterschool programs, and community organizations came together to create Community Learning Hubs. Seeking innovative solutions to provide more students with access to in-person, safe learning opportunities, organizations ranging from national programs to smaller, local community providers pioneered new models to open their program doors to all children. These efforts resulted in Community Learning Hubs, which, unlike afterschool programs, operate all day long for students whose schools are on hybrid or all virtual schedules.
Community Learning Hubs are community-driven efforts to support students’ learning and well-being, providing safe places to connect to school, caring adults, and additional services. Community Learning Hubs have become a lifeline for students that are in all virtual and hybrid school models – giving them a safe place to be throughout the day and, in some cases, evenings. For many of these students, learning at home is difficult or impossible for a variety of reasons. For all students, hubs present an essential opportunity to connect with other students and caring adults and have access to virtual academics and in-person, socially distanced enrichment in an environment that follows strict COVID safety protocols. Hubs leverage facilities and partnerships in new ways to offer easily accessible locations staffed by community leaders, caring educators, and youth development experts and often located within walking distance of residential areas and tap staff from afterschool providers.
The Afterschool Alliance states “Community Learning Hubs collaborate across school districts, community organizations, the private sector, faith-based organizations, and philanthropies. Community Learning Hubs have helped ensure that youth still have access to critical supports. Community partnerships have facilitated access to meals, educational resources, social and emotional supports, and assisting children in participating in virtual learning successfully. These collaborations are primarily responsible for the success of Community Learning Hubs. Partnerships with community-based organizations can provide facilities, enrichment programming, funding, PPE supplies, and additional resources and services and help address the most pressing needs of youth and their families, working together to meet those needs. Additionally, partnering with schools and school districts allows Community Learning Hubs to best support virtual learning and engage students to ensure they continue to learn throughout the pandemic. These partnerships can take on different forms depending on the organization that is leading the work.”
Intermediaries play a key role
Intermediaries like Future of School are organizations and initiatives that coordinate and establish relationships between schools, community-based organizations, afterschool programs, and other entities in their communities. Due to their role in supporting education networks, intermediaries are a natural fit to coordinate Community Learning Hubs. One of the most challenging tests facing schools this fall will be how to pull off widespread intervention and assistance for students who will begin the 2021-22 school year with learning loss. The first step in an effective intervention is identifying the students who need extra help. Districts must be creative to adjust some of the indicators in these systems to remote or hybrid learning realities—especially as things like attendance take on new meaning. Study after study identifies intensive, one-on-one, or one-to-two tutoring as the most effective way to help students who are falling behind in their learning to catch up. The challenge for districts is figuring out how to pay for this expensive approach and how to make it translate in a remote setting.
Extending learning time in creative ways, such as weeklong “academies” and the use of community learning hubs during summer, spring, and fall breaks or Saturday sessions has the potential to drive significant learning gains. These so-called acceleration academies are showing real promise in a group of districts in Massachusetts. Despite all this experimentation, awareness of Community Learning Pods/Hubs remains a significant hurdle. In a recent survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted by EdWeek, 36% said they heard about learning pods for the first time through the study itself. However, a national survey of Black parents by the National Coalition for Public School Options showed that even though they generally knew little about Community Learning Hubs before taking the survey, Black parents reacted favorably to learning hubs.
Community Learning Hubs Creating Equity and Access
In Charleston, SC, the district partners with churches and other local organizations to support virtual learning. School board members approved a measure in early September of 2020 that allowed district officials to partner with nonprofits, churches, and other community groups to create “instructional support groups,” also commonly referred to as “community learning hubs,” where online students gather in small numbers to socialize and receive academic help. Conscious of this grim reality between the haves and the have-nots, the school district set out to make learning hubs free and accessible for the students who need them the most. An elder at one of the churches said he considers the effort a fulfillment of a longtime vision of his church. “So this is getting back to the roots of what used to be so common in the Black community. We wanted to be a part of that bedrock foundation of helping children learn and families grow.”
San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families has helped San Francisco Unified go further by coordinating the parks department and libraries. As well as using existing youth development nonprofits to provide 40 small “walking distance” learning hub sites across the city (with plans to extend to 80 sites). This Community Hubs Initiative supports K-6 students doing the district’s Distance Learning Curriculum, with a first wave prioritizing residents of homeless shelters, public housing, ELLs, children in foster care, and low-income families “with a focus on historically impacted communities” including African American, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and Asian families. This priority list is similar to the lists of other districts providing free hubs.
In Arizona, Mesa Public Schools operates onsite support centers, which provide a safe, supervised space for students to access remote learning. The state requires school districts to offer this support to students in need, including children of first responders, foster children, students with disabilities, and students lacking technology or supervision at home. Most third-party or district-run hubs rely on virtual instruction delivered by the child’s teacher with in-person “facilitators” (typically childcare and afterschool providers or district non-teaching personnel cafeteria workers or central office administrators). This aligns with survey findings, which suggest parents use pods to supplement, not supplant, instruction provided by traditional public schools.
Community Learning Tech Hubs expanding a good idea
The State of South Carolina will spend $6 million of its federal COVID-19 aid to help tackle broadband deserts across the state through a partnership with the University of South Carolina, HBCU Benedict College and Apple. Dick Riley, former U.S. Secretary of Education and former governor of South Carolina, has outlined his recommendations for expanding learning opportunities and technology access to children in the face of COVID-19. Those recommendations were submitted to the education transition team for President Joe Biden and can be read below.
Expanding educational and tech opportunities for school-age children have never been more critical to the success of young people and working families, especially now in communities hit so hard by COVID-19. To counteract the coronavirus’s many negative and long-lasting impacts on learning and jobs, it is critical to make more opportunities available for engaged learning — with safe, age-appropriate adult supervision — during out-of-school times, especially for children and youth ages 5-14. In addition to quality childcare and early education and development, this would provide much-needed support for enhanced K-12 learning, as well as enable working parents to pursue their employment to provide for their families and contribute to our economy.
To dramatically expand such learning opportunities, more Community Learning and Tech Hubs should be created in interested school communities across America. According to Afterschool Alliance surveys, approximately 19.4 million school-age children not currently in an afterschool program would be enrolled if one were available to them.
A new federal investment of $10 billion annually would support 40,000 schools and/or their community organizations, working together, to become Community Learning and Tech Hubs. This would cover about half of the school communities in America. Benefits would include the following:
1. Mitigate learning losses due to the pandemic through expanded academic enhancement opportunities for elementary-middle students before and after school, during summers, in and out of school buildings, in person and virtually by fully leveraging community and school resources and expertise.
2. Help close the digital divide and lack of technology access for students and families.
3. Provide engaged learning with adult supervision during the out-of-school time so parents can work or upgrade their skills, as well as support elementary and middle school children’s social, emotional, and physical health and development.
4. Inspire students to learn science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and creative arts (STEAM) through coding, robotics, and arts-integrated science experiences (opportunities that will get short shrift in schools due to budget cuts) to strengthen the talent pipeline for ever-growing careers in the tech industry.
5. Engage middle and high school students in career and college pathway opportunities, service learning and entrepreneurship projects to discover and mobilize their talents.
Chicago Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement in Education (Face2) – Community Tech Hubs Model Pilot Sites
When I spoke to Alan Conley, Director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives at the Chicago Public School District about the district Community Learning Tech Hub pilot initiative, he shared, “One of the most frequent questions received from those in the faith community is, ‘How can the faith community serve schools when there is a separation between church and state?’ This question is what the Office of Faith Based Initiatives with Chicago Public Schools seek to undertake by cultivating strategic partnerships between the faith community and our schools. Many of our faculty, families, and students obtain their core values from a particular faith community.
To that end, our CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson deems it appropriate and necessary to bridge those gaps that often exist between Chicago Public Schools and the faith communities of Chicago. This is why we currently have over 47 formalized partnerships across the city of Chicago. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the faith community can indeed serve public schools as long as their programming is secular in nature. Secular programming that is administered with empathy will impact a child for a lifetime.
Academic progress is what every school district desires, however, one’s academic progress is often a direct result of their academic experience. Does a student feel love by a caring village of supporters? Does a student have a safe place to go when they are out of school? Does a student continue to learn while they are not in the academic setting? In Chicago where nearly 80% of our students come from low-income households, sometimes the answer to these questions are, no. Faith-based partnerships help to enhance the academic experience via safe spaces.”
Alan went on to say, “Our current climate let us know that Community Learning Tech Hubs are more important than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that there was a great digital divide that existed primarily in Black and Brown communities. Community Learning Tech Hubs will afford students the opportunity to learn in safe spaces where adults care about their academic experience while mitigating any potential learning loss due to the pandemic. They also create pathways of success for their parents, some of who have never obtained a four-year degree. Creating opportunities for Chicago Public School families will change the trajectory of their lives forever and will allow the faith community to play an essential role in making this happen. For it takes a healthy village to raise healthy children.”
CPS is implementing their Community Learning Tech Hubs through six Parent University pilot sites and partnering with Google (Google Career Certificate Program), Tynker (Summer Coding Camps) and Comp-U-Dopt (free reconditioned computers for families who do not own one in their home) to make this project happen. Future of School is serving as the intermediary in the collaboration, bringing other community, EdTech companies and technology resources to help the pilot sites be successful.
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Antonio B. Boyd is a Doctor of Education Student at Northeastern University, Graduate School of Education in the College of Professional Studies. He serves as Executive Vice President at Future of School. A national education intermediary focused on ensuring all students reach their unbounded potential.
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