At Los Robles-Ronald McNair Academy in East Palo Alto on Wednesday morning, a young boy sat quietly at a desk, writing words in Spanish in a notebook as he watched his teacher lead a dual immersion lesson on Zoom. More than 6 feet away, a girl stood up and stretched her arms over her head, mirroring her teacher on her own iPad screen.
They are among about 76 Ravenswood City School District students who returned to campuses this week in new learning hubs created by the district in partnership with local nonprofits.
Ravenswood has teamed up with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, San Francisco 49ers Academy and East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring to offer free, supportive in-person spaces to students to access distance learning. The school district is providing the classrooms, meals and custodial support while the nonprofits are in charge of the programming and responsible for adhering to all local and state public health guidelines. The program is permissible under recently issued state guidance that allows schools to offer in-person instruction for small groups of high-need students.
The hubs were created in response to a district survey that found about 25% of parents need child care during the school day, or for about 580 children. Families of about 250 students wanted to sign up for the hubs in the first days they were advertised, according to the district.
In the short term, Ravenswood is hoping to serve 140 students across all of the learning hubs and, in the long term, accommodate more than 200 students, Superintendent Gina Sudaria told the Weekly.
The learning hubs are open during school hours, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Los Robles-McNair and Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School.
"The learning hubs not only help the student, it helps the families be able to carry on and sustain their household," Sudaria said during a Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula webinar on Wednesday evening. "Students are able to come into a safe place, access Wi-Fi and ... (have) some accountability. There's an adult in the room who's there to not only respond to you emotionally as a child but to help academically when you get stuck, making sure you're on time during the synchronous learning and making sure you're actually carrying on with the work during that asynchronous work."
Boys & Girls, for its hub, is overseeing three classrooms of kindergarten and first-grade students at Los Robles-McNair. Each classroom has a stable cohort of no more than 10 students from the same school — Los Robles, Costano or Belle Haven — and two Boys & Girls employees, who all volunteered for this particular assignment. The students have their temperatures checked and are screened for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure daily (as were this reporter and photographer when they visited). They sit at socially distanced desks and wear masks. Only one student can go to the bathroom at a time, and they stop at a "sanitation station" to use hand sanitizer when they return to the classroom. The staff use an incentive program to keep the students safe and on track, giving them points for properly wearing masks or staying on task during Zoom classes.
Boys & Girls staff said they were eager to leverage their resources to meet a need in the community as schools remain closed and many students continue to struggle with internet access, having a quiet space to learn or to simply focus on Zoom classes. The district has distributed more than 1,000 Wi-Fi hot spots and is rushing to purchase more for students on a waitlist, according to Sudaria. According to a survey at the start of the school year, nearly 300 families were without a stable internet connection.
The district is also working separately to increase attendance among all students. When the school year started, 72% of students were attending online school, according to the district. By Sept. 4, that increased to 82%.
At the learning hubs, students have reliable internet, meals throughout the day and adults to step in when they need help, whether to find the right Zoom code to log in to class or to stay on task during several hours of online learning. The Boys & Girls reached out to Ravenswood teachers to get each student's daily schedule, which are written on whiteboards in the classrooms.
Spencer Haar, site leader for the Boys & Girls hub at Los Robles-McNair, said parents have been "thankful" when dropping their kids off. Parents are not allowed to come on the campuses, a particular disappointment for the parents who wanted to watch their kindergarteners have their first-ever in-person classroom experience.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula also opened three of its own learning hubs this week: one at the nonprofit's East Palo Alto clubhouse on Pulgas Avenue and two in Redwood City. On Wednesday morning at the East Palo Alto hub, which is next door to Los Robles-McNair, about 17 students of all ages were learning online, sitting at socially distanced tables set up in the parking lot outside the clubhouse.
The children are happy to be around other children, staff said. One young boy started crying at the end of the day on Tuesday because he didn't want to leave school.
"It's nice for them to see other kids," said Jenny Obiaya, chief program officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula. "It can be such an isolating time."
Boys & Girls hopes its Ravenswood hub will eventually accommodate more students. One barrier for working parents, however, is transportation. Three sisters who started in the learning hub earlier this week had to drop out, Haar said, because their mother couldn't pick them up in the afternoons. He said they're hoping the district can provide transportation to students who need it.
The Ravenswood school board approved last Thursday memorandums of understanding with the three nonprofits. Board member Sharifa Wilson cast the sole "no" vote, citing concerns about whether the nonprofit staff working at the hubs will be regularly tested for the coronavirus.
The district has allocated $750,000 to support the learning hubs from $3 million it received in federal funds to mitigate students' learning loss. The funds expire at the end of the year, so the district will look to the three nonprofits to pay to continue the hubs if schools remain closed into 2021.
With other organizations managing the hubs, the district will be able to learn from what works and what doesn't.
"We want to be able to provide direct instruction and bring kids back," Sudaria said Wednesday. "We want to do so in a safe way and we think the learning hubs (are) a way to be able to launch and play out what it will be like to have kids on campus."
The learning hubs are open to any Ravenswood school district student. Families who are interested in applying for a spot at a leaning hub can do so here.
Other local nonprofits have stepped in to support Ravenswood students who are struggling with distance learning. East Palo Alto education nonprofit Thiebaut Method started a new online learning program using volunteers to teach Ravenswood students how to use distance technologies, with a list of students waiting to sign up. All Students Matter, which pre-pandemic placed volunteers in Ravenswood classrooms to provide support, is now using volunteers to provide one-on-one virtual tutoring to students. Both organizations are looking for more volunteers so they can serve more students.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.