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When school buildings abruptly closed last spring, many wealthy families quickly pooled their resources to pay for private teachers, academic coaches, and art instructors to supplement their children’s at-home schooling in small groups, or “learning pods.”
But most low-income parents, like Luisanna Amaya of South Boston, were faced with the impossible task of juggling work with the needs of young children trying to learn online.
Her 5-year-old son Jahdian had trouble sitting still and struggled to use the online platform where his teacher at Russell Elementary School put his assignments. He also needed help recording himself sounding out syllables, counting, and taking pictures of words he had been practicing.
Amaya had to help him and his 7-year-old brother, Osmany, while doing her own work as an assistant property manager at the Villa Victoria housing development in the South End.
“When I say they were failing, I am not exaggerating,” Amaya said. “If they got nine assignments, they only got to one.”
Amaya eventually signed her sons up in a learning pod for low-income families. Almost immediately things improved.
The boys’ learning pod, in the gleaming basement of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, is one of more than a dozen free pods opened in the fall by Community Learning Collaborative, a fusion of four organizations run by Black and Latino nonprofit leaders serving primarily low-income Black and Latino children.
The organizations are the YMCA of Greater Boston; Latinos for Education; The BASE, which supports student athletes; and Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, which advocates for low-income families in Boston.
“Learning pods have popped all across the country and it was mostly well-to-do families that decided to use their resources,” said Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, executive director of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, or IBA. “We came together thinking we need to do something similar for our children.”
Pods, also known as learning hubs or study halls, have been slower to arrive in low-income communities. But in the last six months they have increasingly popped up in churches, libraries, and recreational facilities to provide safe spaces for students to do their remote learning. Usually they are funded through a combination of nonprofits, private donations, and discounted family tuition.
And some of their leaders believe that even after the pandemic abates, the increased investment by community organizations in children’s learning will remain.
Besides the Community Learning Collaborative, more than 1,900 students attend more than a hundred free full-day, in-person learning pods in an assortment of community centers in Dorchester, East Boston, Chinatown, and other parts of the city, according to Chris Smith, who runs Boston After School & Beyond, a network of out-of-school programs and services.
Most of the students attend public schools in Boston; nearly 70 percent of those in the pods are Black and Latino students, according to school district figures.
Other new pods operate with a sliding scale for fees.
The Rev. David Wright, executive director of BMA Ten Point Coalition, an alliance of 30 predominantly Black churches, said the alliance transformed its Victory Generations afterschool program into full-day learning pods at two of its churches, in Roxbury and Dorchester. Together they serve nearly two dozen kindergarten through sixth-grade students, whose families pay a little more than $200 weekly for staffing and other costs, said Rochelle Jones, the director.
That’s what some low-income families receive as a weekly state subsidy for education or afterschool care for school-age children. Church officials have raised funds to help families who don’t have a subsidy and can’t afford the fee, Jones said. “The need is so great‚’’ she added.
Wright and other leaders said many Black churches and community groups, already strained financially, do not have the capacity, infrastructure, or resources to establish their own learning pods.
“It’s not something you can just sort of muscle your way through,” Wright said. “It takes a lot of intensive, intentional planning to make something happen, and I don’t think the resources are there.”
The Community Learning Collaborative, supported by funders, now offers 13 pods, each with eight to 12 students in elementary to high school. The staff, some of whom are licensed teachers, have experience supporting youth both inside and outside of school, officials said.
“It’s a needed service,” said Robert Lewis Jr., founder of The BASE. “Parents know that they can continue working during the pandemic knowing that their kids have a place to be every day, five days a week.”
James Morton, president of the YMCA of Greater Boston, which also offers separate learning centers, said the organizations are sharing expertise, staff, and resources, and helping to “reimagine” the role of community organizations in the education of young people.
He and others believe that virtual learning will remain a significant part of students’ educational experience for years to come — and that community organizations will continue to play a greater role in supporting kids’ learning.
“Because of the pandemic and . . . [equity] issues that have been exacerbated as a result, we can never go back to education as it was,” added Amanda Fernández, cofounder of Latinos for Education.
Damarri Sanford, a first-grader at Murphy K-8 School, fidgeted in his chair in one of the Community Learning Collaborative’s pods in the basement of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last month. But the 6-year-old kept his hands on small squares of paper he had cut out, each with a letter of the alphabet.
“The students that need the most assistance are the ones in kindergarten or in the first grade,” said the site director, Ana Montes Diaz, a former public school educator. “Some of them have never been in school before. This is their first school experience being with their peers in a structured setting.”
Mask-clad students sat around tables separated by partitions, some of them adorned with their own artwork.
Instead of calming a student with a gentle hug or touch on the arm, teachers sometimes take them on walks or bring them to a quiet space.
Montes Diaz said pictures of her dogs work wonders to settle down students.
Porshia Sanford, Damarri’s mother, said she has noticed a positive change in her son, who has autism and sometimes acts out when he’s in a new environment. He had been inside his Murphy Elementary School building for only four days in October when a rise in coronavirus cases temporarily closed its doors. Now that he’s at the pod, he has really settled down, Sanford said.
When Damarri got fidgety at his table recently, an instructor moved him to face the window and allowed him to kneel on his chair while he worked.
Karina Velez, of Dorchester, said her two younger children, a second-grader and a seventh-grader, are thriving. On a recent visit, Wilmary, the second-grader, was engrossed in creating her own book about owls, while James, the seventh-grader, reviewed work in a separate classroom — or pod — for older students.
“I’m happy because it’s not a big group,” she said. “They get supervised, and they are learning.”
Luisanna Amaya, the South Boston mother who struggled to supervise her sons’ learning while working full time, has witnessed steady progress in the pod.
One January morning, 5-year-old Jahdian held a paper owl that he had made earlier that morning while trying to get through the lessons his teacher at the Russell School had assigned.
“Airplane,” said a voice from his computer. “Turtle.”
Jahdian quietly repeated each word.
The boys no longer miss assignments — and their overall performance has soared. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to them,” Amaya said.