Educators Innovate to Preserve Learning in a Global Pandemic

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When COVID-19 ended in-person education in March, alarm bells went off for teachers and school leaders around the country: the so-called summer slide was starting early, and it was likely to be exacerbated by systemic inequities affecting low-income students of color. How would this extended period away from brick-and-mortar classrooms impede learning? And what could educators and community leaders do to ensure students and families remain engaged in quality learning?

“Use summer to be an intervention in the achievement gap." That’s the answer from Lauren Sanchez Gilbert, Chief Executive Officer at BellXCel, a Massachusetts-based educational nonprofit. “We know the damage of the slide, and if you combine it with the slowdown of instruction that happened during COVID—there is going to be significant loss.”

BellXcel has transitioned its usual in-person summer learning program to BellXcel Remote, with the help of a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Partnering with YMCAs, 4H clubs, churches and schools around the country, BellXcel Remote provides a package of materials—workbooks, a family resource guide and online portal, magazines, and books—to high-need, low-income students from kindergarten through 8th grade. Working virtually and independently with teacher support, students follow a three-to-six-week curriculum that covers math, STEAM, English language arts and social-emotional learning. At the same time, BellXcel Remote also supports educators with teaching guides and professional development to ensure teachers have the skills they need to manage the dynamics and challenges of virtual learning.

Their program is one of many supported by Schusterman and other funders aimed at keeping kids engaged during the summer months of this exceptional year.

Philadelphia-based Center for Black Educator Development has no intention of allowing a pandemic to thwart its vital mission. Among other facets, it provides apprenticeship and mentoring for high school and college students of color who work in classrooms with students of color enrolled in first through third grades. With support from Schusterman, it has tweaked its two-year-old program and put it online. In going virtual, CBED’s program has become accessible not just to students in partner schools but to children and would-be teachers around the country. 

As CBED has experienced, going remote presents many opportunities, but it also comes with new challenges.

“How are we going to set expectations for virtual learning if we know that all of our families don't have the equipment?” Victoria Harrison, CBED’s Operations Manager said. “Being virtual, we had to ask ourselves: What is our goal now? Are we trying to get them increased grade levels? Are we trying to make a place for them to be? What are achievable goals in this uncertain space? We don't actually want to mitigate the slide or net out at zero. The goal is to help them advance,” said Harrison.

Karim Abouelnaga, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Practice Makes Perfect, cited the opportunities presented by going online this summer.

“This is a huge summer of learning,” he said. “We are in this to learn as well as to teach this summer,” especially given that remote schooling will become more prevalent in the fall.

Practice Makes Perfect uses a combination of synchronous and small-group asynchronous instruction, serving about 10,000 students in its six-week programs aimed at those enrolled through Grade 8. It encourages independent work and employs about 200 college students and recent graduates to be the instructors in math and reading. Teachers also run community-building exercises, games and homework review.

A rising sophomore at Cazenovia College in upstate New York, Emily Zemsky, a Practice Makes Perfect teaching fellow, uses ice-breakers with her remote students as a way to encourage them to become friendly and more open with one another. She said she, “sends out surveys asking them about their favorite foods, pets, where they’re from, what kind of learner they are, anything about their home situation that might be pertinent to education. Do they have siblings? Is there a private place to be in school?”

“How do you leverage what you’re learning beyond the classroom?" That is one of Antonio Tijerino’s enduring questions. Tijerino is the President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, which runs the national program Code as a Second Language that offers instruction, mentoring, help with obtaining internships and networking opportunities. CSL went online this summer with support from Schusterman. It is fueled, as ever, by its mission to teach coding, “with cultural relevancy, with a Latino and often immigrant lens, as well as career paths and social impact,” Tijerino said. This program serves about 1,000 students with a “unique sense of urgency” because of the pandemic, which has caused an educational crisis along with the financial and health crisis.  

“Only one out of six Latinos can work from home, and that was before key industries employing many Hispanics were devastated by the pandemic, putting Latinos and African Americans at greater risk,” added Tijerino. “All of a sudden, parents dealing with tremendous pressure and stress have to homeschool their children.  We not only want to educate these children but take pressure off parents who have financial, health and other strains to deal with.”

“Representation matters,” added Daisy Madrigal, CSL’s manager. “Often times, when you see the tech industry, it’s not representative of our community. It’s white and male-dominated. So for us, it’s important to put someone who looks like the students in front of them. In our CSL fellowship and programs, the instructor is someone who has gone through what you’ve gone through and has gone to college to become a computer science engineer. That helps you connect with the students—helps you connect with the material.” 

Other programs, like the Springboard Collaborative, engage students' families to help students connect with the subject matter. Springboard moved its summer partnership with DC Public Schools online this year; its goal is to get the approximately 900 kindergarteners through third-graders in the program up to grade reading levels through small group online instruction that engages other household members.

“The teachers also do a weekly check-in one on one with the families,” said Victoria Delaney, Manager of Summer Elementary Programs for DCPS. It used support from Schusterman to get devices to students who had none at their disposal. “Whoever is there helping—whether mom, grandma—the teacher will model how to do a skill and say, ‘Okay, Grandma, I want you to do it.' And each day until they check in again, Grandma knows she is going to be practicing that skill with the student.”

Springboard “helps us have a routine for the day,” said Ronnise Norris, a preschool teacher in DCPS whose son is enrolled in the program this summer. “He gets up every day, logs in, he likes his teacher. And I like being able to sit there with him. I can’t do it during the school year.”

“It helps the families take ownership in the learning and helps them feel more confident in their abilities to help,” Delaney said. “Our families know we still care about them.”

Sara Ivry is a freelance writer, editor and podcaster.