Many parents have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic to juggle working at home with helping their children learn virtually, having to come to the rescue when their child's webcam or internet connection goes wonky.
The Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) are working to ease those challenges with in-person and virtual learning labs, tapping numerous community partners to keep local pupils on track academically, as well as supporting young people's social-emotional needs. The learning labs provide either a safe physical or virtual space for small groups of students to receive professional support as they do their school work.
"We're using this opportunity to really leverage the community and our partners," says YCS assistant superintendent Carlos Lopez. "Ypsi and Ann Arbor stepped up to really reach out and serve our kids with dignity and respect."
YCS had already ramped up its partnerships in 2019, announcing an initiative called Collaboration for Change. That program saw YCS deepening ties with Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and Washtenaw County and adding resources to promote literacy, provide mentorship to students, and encourage EMU education students to finish their degrees and stay in the Ypsilanti area when they launch their teaching careers.
All those partners and more are contributing to the district's learning labs. The first of the in-person learning labs opened Monday, Jan. 11 at Parkridge Community Center on the Southside of Ypsilanti.
YCS employees celebrate the opening of the Parkridge Community Center Learning Lab.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's December orders extending the ban on in-person instruction for high school students delayed some of the district's learning lab plans, but the ultimate goal is to create a total of 10 or more in-person labs. There, small cohorts of three to six pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade can take advantage of wi-fi, have breakfast and lunch, and receive academic support and adult supervision. The partner providing the learning lab space must follow an agreement about safety protocols and proper ventilation, Lopez says.
The school district is working to establish more labs in apartment complexes, churches, and nonprofit centers around Ypsi and Ypsi Township. The plan is to have a different emphasis at each location, such as college preparedness or family literacy.
Other learning labs are available in Washtenaw County, such as the ones run by the Ann Arbor YMCA, but there is a cost to attend those. The YCS learning labs are provided entirely free, backed by funding from the county, to eligible pupils.
"We hear from parents all the time, 'I wish my kid was in school. He is struggling with virtual,'" says Turquoise Neal, principal of Ypsilanti Community Middle School and the district's administrator overseeing learning labs and remote learning. "Learning labs give parents and students exactly what they need during a time when we are not able to touch or see our students. All of these options help parents and students feel connected."
Ypsilanti Community Middle School principal Turquoise Neal at the Parkridge Communtiy Center learning lab.
The district is also calling more than a dozen partner support programs "virtual learning labs." Partners including the Michigan Reading Corps, EMU's Bright Futures, Washtenaw Promise, My Brother's Keeper Washtenaw, and the University of Michigan chapter of Phi Delta Upsilon are providing virtual support in online classrooms for academic subjects like reading and math, as well as after-school help and even athletic mentoring for high schoolers.
More than a dozen virtual labs launched just a few weeks into the school year, and more are being added. Neal says a number of partners who previously provided after-school programming offered to support students virtually during classroom time.
Lopez says interns from both the University of Michigan and EMU have been instrumental in keeping kids on track during virtual learning, with up to two interns per class.
"They're helping a lot. They can break out into [smaller virtual] groups and walk the kids through any challenges," Lopez says.
Lopez notes that partners are helping students with project-based learning, sending STEAM kits home with pupils and "breaking the momentum of homework and learning in the traditional way."
Reading support volunteers aren't just improving literacy with their pupils but are addressing social-emotional learning, like reading "The Dot," a picture book with the theme of finding the artist within.
Dwayne Hunter works for the nonprofit Communities in Schools as the site coordinator at Ypsilanti Community High School. Hunter, a former YCS teacher, says one of his goals is to market the in-person labs and increase participation in the virtual labs. Another key component of his job is making sure in-person learning is compliant with government orders and health regulations.
Site coordinator Dwayne Hunter at the Parkridge Community Center Learning Lab.
Hunter says the goal isn't just academic support but to "support [students'] social and mental needs, and any other needs in the household." The in-person learning labs will also allow future educators enrolled at EMU to meet degree requirements that still mandate face-to-face interaction with students.
"It gives those EMU students an opportunity to fill some of those requirements and gives us reassurance that the students are vetted and have goals and desires to be future educators," Hunter says.
Neal says the pre-existing partnerships built through Collaboration for Change were a major asset once the school system had to switch to remote learning.
Shakira Nelson helps a student at the Parkridge Community Center Learning Lab.
"It's awesome how the whole county has come together, and how partners like EMU are able to give us the manpower, through their students, to work with the children," Neal says. "They can work with our children and it gives them that experience for their future careers. There's been such an outpouring of support from the community offering us sites to use for the learning labs. That's what the Collaboration for Change is all about, pooling resources to see how we can benefit children. That exact vision is coming to life."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.