As SNSP students return to class, learning centers that have grown to address the challenges of virtual learning are pivoting their programming in response to declining demand.
Courtesy of Kim Dickey
Last fall, more than 20 community learning centers opened across New Haven to support New Haven public school students with virtual learning. But as schools slowly return to face-to-face classes, the groups behind these centers are considering how to reorient their work.
Learning centers are supervised spaces where local students can spend their school days while taking lessons virtually. At these hubs, students can safely socialize in “pod” groups, while staff members offer one-on-one assistance to those struggling with distance learning. Learning hubs also serve to ease the burden of child care for working parents.
Recently, the shift from NHPS to a blended learning model for elementary and middle school students has resulted in a decrease in demand for learning hub services. In anticipation of further school reopens, local groups that run New Haven’s learning centers are adjusting to cope with declining demand and plan to phase out their services, which will likely happen by now. the end of the school year.
“We are planning different ideas and scenarios so that we can still serve our community,” said Steve Driffin, youth and community programs manager for the non-profit education and vocational training association ConnCAT. “We are not closing. The only thing we have learned is to pivot, as everyone has been doing during this time.
Four of New Haven’s nearly two dozen learning centers are run by the city’s youth and recreation department, while the rest are run by churches and local nonprofits like ConnCAT, Solar Youth and the Boys and Girls Club of New Haven.
All of these learning centers come together in a coalition organized by the local Clifford Beers mental health clinic. Through this coalition, interested families can submit a single application that makes them eligible to be placed in one of the city’s learning centers. According to Barbara Chesler, interim executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of New Haven, leaders of the learning centers meet virtually every Monday to discuss new challenges and developments.
“Learning on their own is very difficult to keep the attention of children,” said Won Jung ’20, director of programs and administration at BGC. “They missed the socialization aspect so much. … The children have made very strong friendships here. And I think having this structure of going to school is really helpful.
The learning centers have been operating since September to help students through virtual learning, although, as NHPS schools continue with their plan to gradually reopen, many children have chosen to attend school on the day in person. but stay at home during virtual days. However, a number of hybrid students continue to frequent the learning centers during their virtual days, which presents a new security challenge.
“We’re just trying to balance it by having virtual children in a room [and hybrid kids in another]”Driffin said.” So the bubbles are still contained. “
Additionally, attendance at learning centers varies based on capacity, with the BGC serving the largest number of students – up to 58 at any given time, according to Chesler.
But learning center attendance rates have declined across the board over the past two months. Chesler and New Haven Youth and Recreation Department Director Gwendolyn Busch Williams told the News they attributed the change to the district’s decision to reopen elementary and middle schools for limited in-person learning this spring. .
Because the schools began to reopen, the learning centers managed by the Youth and Recreation Department experienced particularly low participation. The department operates four learning centers, but only the East Rock Learning Center has participants – it currently serves only one family.
Despite this lack of demand, the four youth and recreation service centers still have resources and are ready to serve families when needed, according to Williams.
“If we get a call tomorrow and 20 families need the learning center, we have the option of setting ourselves up and having them there the next day,” said Williams.
At Solar Youth Learning Centers in Fair Haven and West Rock, the decline in attendance has been less extreme. According to Kim Dickey, coordinator of the Solar Youth learning center, the West Rock site actually welcomed a new student this week.
But in response to the general decline in demand, Dickey said, Solar Youth plans to do outreach with local students instead of phasing out its learning centers, in hopes of attracting additional participants.
“We are redoubling our efforts to try to reach more families in the West Rock and Fair Haven areas, whose children may not have started going to classrooms yet,” Dickey said.
With declining demand, learning centers are also faced with the question of how to keep staff members in employment.
Chesler said staff at his learning center have been working full days from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. since last September – hours that will no longer be convenient once most students return to classes in person.
“We kept 17 or 18 employed people who normally didn’t have a job at all or worked in our after-school program,” Chesler said. “We paid them two and a half hours a day, now we pay 40 hours a week.
According to Williams, staff hired for the Youth and Recreation Department’s learning centers are on “reserve” due to low turnout and remain on the payroll as they focus on other tasks for the job. city. They are currently helping with information calls to people eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Overall, Dickey, Driffin, Williams and Chesler stressed that their learning centers will not be closing in the immediate future, although they expect they will be phased out by the end of the l school year, assuming the public health situation improves.
Beyond their learning centers, which have always been designed to be a temporary solution to the difficulties of virtual learning, these groups strive to meet the long-term needs of young people in New Haven. The BGC offers after-school programs and private lessons for in-person students, and Solar Youth will soon begin to do the same, according to Dickey. The Youth and Recreation Department, BGC and ConnCAT also all plan to run summer programs in person.
“We’re not trying to replace schools at all,” Jung said. “If they open most of the schools, then we’ve done our job. “
NHPS high school students will have the opportunity to retake limited in-person classes on April 5.
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