SAN FRANCISCO—Every morning, as many as 36 children from different public schools gather at the Bernal Heights neighborhood library branch to log in to their online classrooms.
Public schools here have been closed for a year, but about 2,400 children, many of whom are economically disadvantaged or non-native English speakers, have attended online schooling at one of 84 locations the city calls “community learning hubs.”
They are run by the city government, which has no direct control over schools but is spending $63 million on the program intended to replicate the pods that many affluent families across the country formed to help small groups of children attend online school. The program is in part a challenge to the policies of the San Francisco Unified School District, with which city officials have publicly fought over reopening plans.
“What was clear was that these pods were available for people with the right resources,” said Maria Su, executive director of the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, which oversees the San Francisco learning centers. “And it was crystal clear that the children that were going to be the most harmed in this pandemic, the most traumatized, would be our African-Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders and the ones who don’t have the resources.”
About 96% of the students participating in the program are racial minorities, according to the city, compared with about 80% of the district’s 52,000 total students.
Nationwide, about 15% of parents of public-school students said they had organized their children into a learning pod, where a private instructor assists children from different families, according to a January survey by research firm Echelon Insights.
San Francisco has used its publicly-funded community-learning hubs to bolster the arguments that schools should be open already. No Covid-19 outbreaks have been traced to the hubs, according to the city government.
“We were essentially running these children programs, in some cases, literally right next to an empty school building,” said Dr. Su.
Spokeswomen for the school district and the United Educators of San Francisco union didn’t respond to requests for comment about the city’s community hubs initiative.
SFUSD recently reached an agreement with its largest teachers union to switch to a hybrid of in-person and online learning for elementary students beginning April 12. Learning here has been entirely online since last March.
Superintendent Vincent Matthews recently announced with Mayor London Breed that they would partner to expand the community hubs this summer as part of a hybrid in-person and virtual summer schooling program.
San Francisco’s school reopening deliberations have become among the most contentious of those roiling school districts across the country. Last month, the city sued the school district, arguing preparations were so slow it was violating state law. A spokesman for the city attorney said the case was moving forward because the district had no plans to reopen middle and high schools. A hearing is scheduled March 22.
Parents have also mobilized against local school board members here, saying they have given too much priority to social justice matters, such as renaming school campuses, compared with resuming in-person instruction.
The community learning hubs program is open to students who face disadvantages such as low-income backgrounds, living in public housing or needing language assistance. The students are grouped by age and placed in neighborhood pods with free Wi-Fi in spaces owned by the city and run by community nonprofits such as the YMCA. Many sit behind self-decorated cardboard barriers while socially distanced and wearing masks.
Research by the school district showed that in the elementary school grades, all students other than white, multiracial and special education students failed to meet expected marks for their demographic groups in reading this past fall. In math, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and foster youth children in the elementary school grades fell short of their expected marks.
Inside the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, a recently refurbished and retrofitted historic building, a 6-year-old kindergartner took a break from her online bilingual kindergarten class to point out a miniature house she’d made with the other children in her hub.
Emily Madriz, the site director, said the young student was more than 150 assignments behind when she started at the hub last November. It was a common problem. Another student arrived with more than 400 overdue assignments, Ms. Madriz said.
To help the six-year-old kindergartner whittle her workload, staffers let her earn prizes such as snacks. By early March, she had completed all of her assignments.
“It’s clearly obvious that if she was at home, she would just really have fallen behind,” Ms. Madriz said. “And it’s no one’s fault. This is her first experience as a student.”
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Single mother Sonya Iosia, 39 years old, got a job at a learning hub at Samoan Community Development Center after working there as a volunteer, where her two sons and daughter do their remote learning. The space for her children to do their coursework has been a major help, she said, as they live in a three-bedroom apartment together.
“It was just like, ‘OK, I can hear you from the other room,’ ‘I can’t do my work,’” she said, describing the school-from-home situation.
Sonya’s son Sa Iosia, 17, said he initially liked the notion of taking classes from home, but lost motivation as the months wore on.
“This whole setup just feels like a school, and so I get most of my work done here,” Sa said.
Write to Alejandro Lazo at email@example.com
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Source: WSJ – US News