Creative community solutions keep students engaged in school

Photo courtesy of KARE11

When City Connects Coordinators in Minnesota saw that students engaged in virtual learning were missing from school, the coordinators dug in to find out why.

“There were several reasons,” Laurie Acker, the City Connects Program Manager in Minnesota, says. “Some students didn’t have access to the Internet, or they had spotty access because a number of people in their homes were trying to use computers.” Other students lived in homes that were crowded or distracting. 

“The other thing we saw was that for a number of families there wasn’t any parental assistance at home, so some students were trying to do school by themselves without help. Younger students didn’t always know how to use the computer. And middle school students weren’t always motivated to use it.” 

Fortunately, Valerie Quintana saw a solution: use office buildings that have been emptied out by the pandemic to create study spaces for school children. 

Quintana is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Real Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that “responds to the immediate and fluid needs of historically under-represented individuals by thoughtfully listening.” 

The office space has been turned into the Hope Youth Center, “equitable learning pods” with high-quality Internet access where students go to do their schoolwork.

“”Hope Youth Center is a home away from home and a school away from school for distance learners, 95 percent of whom are BIPOC and receive free or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent have academic accommodations,” Quintana says. 

And as ABC news station KSTP reports, “The Real Minneapolis offers free tutoring, technology, tools and food for kids and teens who need it. About 20 students are currently signed up but there’s still room. They can take about 50 kids, ages 10 and up.” 

“For 10-year-old fifth-grader Declan Gooley, it’s a new home away from home. 

“ ‘It’s nice to have a routine. Because I come here in with my bags, I sit down … and then I turn on my computer directly to school,’ ” Gooley tells the station. 

When Acker heard about the program, she went to see it in action. In addition to getting healthy food, students are in a supervised environment where they can virtually and effectively go to school. There’s also quiet music and spaces where students can move around when they’re not in class.

The result? Coordinators have found that the eight City Connects students who are using the learning pods have better attendance. They are showing up virtually, and they are turning on their cameras. 

Acker says the learning pods make it easier to turn on cameras for students who might be self-conscious about their homes — or even about their younger siblings making faces. And for students, having their cameras on helps boost their participation.

“Even though more of our students are going back into the classroom, there’s still going to be families who are not comfortable having children in the classroom,” Acker says. This is especially true for families of color who are worried about the health risks their children could face. “So the learning pods will probably keep filling a need for the rest of the school year.”

It’s a solution that illustrates a key component of the City Connects model: that powerful and creative community solutions can yield huge benefits for students — especially during a pandemic. 

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