Collaborative agencies re-connect children to their virtual classrooms01/20/2021 01:34PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
As the arrival of the pandemic earlier this year sent local school districts into the organized chaos of virtual and hybrid learning, a network of people, agencies and businesses in Kennett Square quickly realized that one component of the local student population – those in kindergarten through the fifth grade who live in the underserved pockets of the community – were deprived of valuable learning tools needed to keep them in class.
If there is any town that knows the full power of collaboration, it is Kennett Square, and the deep connection between people, agencies and businesses has become a lesson by lesson primer in how a municipality should embrace its community.
On Jan. 11, that spirit of unity unveiled its latest chapter, when a small group of area schoolchildren were introduced to the Kennett Learning Pod, a learning opportunity at the offices of Chatham Financial that connects them virtually to their school classrooms through the internet.
The program began with seven students and will increase to 25 children beginning next week – ten in the morning and 15 in the afternoon – as well as include several adult volunteer mentors from the local community.
In addition to receiving adult supervision and internet connection, students are provided with breakfast and lunch, as well as bus transportation to and from Chatham by Krapf School Bus.
The project is being coordinated through the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network (SCCON), a network of area agencies committed to address poverty and co-founded by Square Roots Collective, Kennett Area Community Services, the United Way of Southern Chester County and other community leaders.
Other participating agencies include The Garage Community & Youth Center, the Kennett Education Foundation, the Willowdale Chapel, Together for Education and the Kennett Consolidated School District’s (KCSD) 21st Century Community Learning Center.
Filling a crucial need
“When the pandemic started, everybody had to shift away from their normal ways of doing things, and for many families in our community, their needs increased dramatically, in terms of basic needs like food, shelter and access to education,” said Kate Daneker, Square Roots Collective’s director of social initiatives and SCCON coordinator. “As much as our school districts have worked heroically to get internet connection to these families, there are pockets in our area that remain dead zones.
“Too many kids did not have the full capability to log on to their classrooms from home, or have working parents who are essential employees. We knew that there were kids who would not have adult supervision at home, or perhaps be supervised by a grandparent who would not be able to help their grandkids with virtual schooling.”
Throughout the pandemic, The Garage Community & Youth Center has already been providing internet service and academic support for its middle school and high school level students, but SCCON realized that there wasn’t the same resource for younger students, who are often at a greater need for development. Immediately, The Garage lent its expertise in an effort to help a younger student audience.
“We were already doing this for another age group for a similar population, so we thought, ‘How can we work with others in the community to create an academic opportunity to help young students who are working virtually and in a hybrid situation?’” said Kristin Proto, The Garage’s executive director.
During the initial discussions that eventually launched the Kennett Learning Pod, Kate Marcus, the head of the Giving Committee for Chatham Financial, began discussing the possibility of using the company’s site as a learning center with other Chatham staff.
“Chatham Financial has a long history of giving, and supporting the communities where we work is one of our core purposes,” she said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chatham has been trying to support local organizations financially, but as it became clearer that school wasn’t going to come back in an in-person mode in September -- and because it was likely that our employees were not immediately returning to the office -- we started to talk about we could use our own resources.”
A waiting list
Student enrollment in the program is being coordinated by Elizabeth Garduno, coordinator of program activities for the KCSD’s 21st Century Community Learning Center. She said that the early success of the program – compounded by the need of families to provide technology to their children – has already led to a waiting list for children looking to enroll.
“As soon as I learned about the Kennett Learning Pod, I reached out to the families and informed them about this program,” Garduno said. “Soon after my first message, seven children enrolled. After the kids began the program, they began to tell their friends, and now I have families and kids contacting me to find out how they can also be a part of this program.”
While the duration of the Kennett Learning Pod is contingent upon the length of the COVID-19 pandemic, Proto said that those individuals and groups associated with the program are determined to provide young students with equitable access to learning tools.
“The DNA of The Garage is seen in those relational aspects that happen in all facets of our work, and to have these additional mentors and volunteers on board will allow these children to go from isolation at home to a small army of caring adults who are invested in their daily activities,” she said. “There is nothing better in a young person’s life than to have that relationship with an advocate or a cheerleader.
“For these young people, they will be given far more than just access to the internet.”
To learn more about the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network, visit www.sccnetwork.org.
Donations to the Kennett Learning Pod can be made to The Garage Community & Youth Center at www.garageyouthcenter.org or by check, sent to 115 S. Union St., Kennett Square, Pa. 19348.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].