Over the past month, “pods” have been sprouting up in communities across the nation and the globe to help support student learning during this unprecedented time. These are especially prevalent in communities where student success had already been precarious prior to COVID due to multiple and systemic barriers to equitable education. Beaver Falls has a high number of students lacking adequate digital access, as well as the social or financial support required for effective online learning. These factors make Learning Pods a necessity for equitable academic success during this period. In a partnership with Trails Ministries and the Beaver Falls School District, Neighborhood North has created safe, quiet and structured spaces to support our community’s pre-K-5th grade students during the days they are doing “asynchronous online learning.” We have developed a Learning Pod model that is scalable for the community’s needs and has been adaptable to the district’s requirements. In Beaver Falls, the Neighborhood Learning Pods offer four different pod locations that are open Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday, 10:00 am-2:00 pm, and are run by qualified staff, as well as volunteers.
Our Neighborhood Learning Pods have been up and running for a couple of weeks now, and we are certainly building the plane while flying it. However, students and staff feel safe, and families report that students are engaged, and learning is occurring. Our Learning Pod staff has worked hard to create a system that sets kids up for success, and we are hopeful that along with academic successes, students will grow in SEL competencies and skills as well. Toward this end, supplemental activities are provided to help enhance learning, such as a Penn State Beaver Extension’s 4-H Club, STEM activities by local college students, learning support provided by Geneva College’s Speech Pathology Department, and an arts integration program through a teaching artist from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. We also borrow technologies from the Beaver County IU to help promote early CS and STEM learning.
The crisis of the pandemic drove teachers and administrations to seek solutions for the education of their student population beyond the walls of the school building this fall. Often, we react to a time of crisis and then return to our familiar approaches and systems. However, we believe this time can be seen as an opportunity to re-examine how our community approaches education moving forward. An article entitled “If Young Black Lives Matter, Liberating Learning Matters” (The Nonprofit Quarterly), states: “Liberating where students learn acknowledges both family and community as learning platforms, and that student learning starts at birth, before a child is even introduced to a school building. It means reimagining the role of the public school building as a community hub to connect students and families to the other resources and places where learning can and already does occur. It reimagines the role of an educator as a facilitator of learning supported by community resources and technology, rather than simply a purveyor of content.”
The collaboration that has taken place in the creation of places of learning in our community has inspired us to question what a new learning ecosystem might look like as we continue to press against the old systems and structures that simply did not offer educational opportunities equitably across our county. Students and families are now being supported by multiple organizations and relationships in a creative and expansive system of support that makes the walls of the school more fluid.
Community learning spaces that empower families and equitably engage all learners is a vision of education that we must hold before us as we continue to think about the future of learning.
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Honoring Fred Rogers, creator of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, "Won't You Be My Neighbor Day" is on March 20th. Neighborhood North will dedicate the full week of March 20-25 to exploring emotions through mask-making in the Maker Space, followed by stage or puppet show performances.