Resilient Neighborhoods: How organizations are helping Detroit students stay ahead during COVID-19

From state shutdowns and job losses to friends and family members falling ill, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our everyday lives. The disruption has significantly impacted primary and secondary educational systems. A generation of students are attending school virtually and there is concern they might fall behind.

President-elect Joe Biden said in November students could fall a year behind during his meeting with the Covid-19 Advisory Board. A Pew Research Center survey found that 30% of parents are very concerned and 35% are somewhat concerned their children will fall behind.

To help fill the gap, community organizations such as MACC Development, Hope House Detroit, and Math 4 Success are stepping up to help students thrive while learning virtually. The community groups have organized virtual tutoring services on platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom. MACC Development, a nonprofit founded by Mack Avenue Community Church on Detroit’s east side servicing the 48214 ZIP code, is one organization providing free tutoring services using Zoom through its MACC LIT program.
Alyce Hartman, director of education at MACC
Alyce Hartman, director of education at MACC, began researching online platforms for tutoring well before COVID-19 struck.

“I believe the governor closed schools down on a Thursday and we were up and running the following Monday,” Hartman recalls.

Hartman lists transportation issues and changes to family work schedules as reasons for offering online tutoring. Many students transitioned over even though many families were scrambling trying to figure out what to do. MACC LIT continued its kindergarten through fifth-grade online programming through the summer. In the fall, MACC expanded the program to include older students.

"Since the pandemic, we’ve taken on older students when being approached by parents, but first we make sure the needs are met for our K through fifth-graders,” Hartman says. They were limited by space prior to going online but students receiving tutoring services tripled from pre-COVID-19. In addition, MACC has added students from a school on Detroit’s east side this semester. There’s currently a waiting list for MACC LIT and the newly added MACC Math program. Hartman says the program could use more tutors.

Parents, students, and volunteers weigh in

Katrina Bowens first enrolled her son, Jacob, in MACC’s soccer program three years ago after seeing a sign on her way to church. Jacob, who’s in third grade, has been using MACC services over Zoom since March. Bowens says her son’s reading and math skills have improved.

“Jacob’s reading was off when we started but he is now at a fourth-grade level and his math has also progressed. To have those services has been a breath of fresh air because they care at MACC.”

MACC LIT is doing its best to meet the demands. Hartman says there are enough tutors that every student meets one on one twice a week for 30-60 minutes. Hartman stresses volunteers are extremely important to MACC, and it would be impossible to reach the students in the community without them.

Esther Yang, MACC volunteer for the past two years, enjoys lesson planning and getting to figure out students’ personalities and learning styles. Yang, who has a love for kids, says the key is to make online learning interesting.

“It’s about learning the platforms, using PowerPoint, the whiteboard in Zoom, creating digital flashcards and making it visually appealing,” she says.

Yang has taken on a lead volunteer role with MACC while Hartman and other staffers focus on the curriculum and create a virtual network with their tutors. The virtual network has tutors assigned to cohorts based and grades and subject matter. Tutors within the same cohort can learn from one another, get training, and substitute when scheduling conflicts arise.

LIT has a partnership with Central Michigan University and honors students tutor in literary arts and math. Other tutors include retired teachers, executives, young professionals, and students from the University of Detroit Mercy.

Hope for the future

“Schools and teachers are doing the very best they can during this time and all the supplemental programs help,” says Becky Gentry, executive director of Hope House Detroit, a community center for kids in Jefferson Chalmers. Gary and Becky Gentry from Hope House Detroit
Hope House Detroit has two homes that offer programs for kids. Guys’ Group & Girls’ Club aims to help middle and high school students foster character, build relationships, and learn about the Bible. Read Around the Block is a reading comprehension program similar to MACC LIT and Kids’ Club is a time for K-8 students to learn about God and have fun.

Gentry and her husband, Gary, are Christians and fell in love with Hope Community Church and the area after visiting. They commuted an hour from Brighton every Sunday for a year before purchasing a home in Jefferson Chalmers in 2010.

They were already involved in helping kids. Some of the youngsters in the neighborhood from Hope House Detroit helped the Gentrys rehab their home.

Around the Block, one of HHD's signature programs, builds on reading for first to fifth graders in Jefferson Chalmers. Before COVID-19 hit, Read Around the Block had 12-15 kids each assigned an individual tutor. When everything shut down, RAB went online.

In the summer when COVID-19 numbers dropped, programming started back outside. HHD passed out bags called “goods of hope” with games and snacks to the 350 kids in their database to stay in touch and show they were available.

“The situation in the fall wasn’t as dramatic. Families had a better grasp of online schooling and we were able to contact families and get students in-person tutoring,” Gentry says.

To maintain a safe environment, sessions began outside and only eight kids were able to receive tutoring, following the governor’s orders. Each student was paired with a tutor. The Gentrys use their homes on Marlborough Street to meet in-person.

Asked if online tutoring would be permanently implemented at HHD, Gentry says for a relationships-focused organization like the Gentrys’, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach.

“It’s hard to imagine where we’re going to land. Are people going to get the vaccine? It's hard to know what the other side looks like because the relationship is a key component to our philosophy and to know the kids and be a part of their world, virtual won’t become our mainstay.”

Gentry thinks kids and families have “virtual fatigue,” but she believes as a community we need all the approaches — virtual, in-person, small group, big group — available. She also notes volunteers enjoy meeting in person and HHD is there for the kids and neighborhood.

“We just really love the kids,” she says, adding their mission is to “encourage and accompany children to reach their potential within the confines of their families and community.”

Math as a way out

Dr. Leron Lightfoot, founder of tutoring service Math 4 Success says that his company’s tutoring hours tripled since moving online to platforms such as Zoom and Google Classrooms. Dr. Lightfoot attributes the increase to parents being at home during school hours and seeing students struggle with online platforms and work. Math 4 Success has 30 tutors working with 60 students weekly and 125 students quarterly through their classes and DAPCEP programming. 
Dr. Leron Lightfoot, founder of Math 4 SuccessMath 4 Success uses TechTown Detroit to host sessions but offered students a two-week online course when schools closed before Easter last year. Dr. Lightfoot was initially skeptical about online learning but has been pleasantly surprised by the students’ engagement. He says lessons have become more verbal, and students show they know the material by explaining it and are thriving.

Dr. Lightfoot says that math always came easy to him and enabled him to get a full-ride college scholarship. While working on his Ph.D. at Michigan State University, he met many foreign students from Asia that also said math provided life-changing opportunities.

“Math was my way out of the inner city of Los Angeles,” Lightfoot says. “I started Math 4 Success to give kids with backgrounds like myself a way out and understanding that math can be valued as a tool to succeed.”

Two years ago, Heather Knox was searching for African American math tutors for her son Evan, now an 11th grader at Bloomfield Hills High School.

“The online tutoring is easy because my son Evan was already accustomed through school and it’s like being in person, he can show the work easily. We would choose to continue online sessions in the future because of the convenience,” Knox says.

Though times are challenging, MACC Development, Hope House Detroit, and Math 4 Success are finding ways to be innovative and steadfast in their commitment to the communities they serve. As students and families navigate the pandemic and school closings, these organizations are filling the gaps. Looking ahead, there is an opportunity to take these experiences and improve education for students. Technology is the bridge between students and volunteer tutors, and with it, more kids than ever can receive the educational tools to stay ahead.

Tyrone Mitchell is a community contributor for Model D as part of our Resilient Neighborhoods reporting and engagement series, which is currently being funded by the Kresge Foundation. Read more about the author and his fellow contributors here.