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Free learning pods provide much-needed option for city families

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Dante Flores gives his class a virtual high-five after completing a discussion about a story his class read. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Dante Flores gives his class a virtual high-five after completing a discussion about a story his class read.
Just after noon on a Thursday, eight students are seated at desks spaced out around a large room at the Phillis Wheatley Community Library in Corn Hill.

They range in age from 5 to 12. Most of them are working on their laptops as several teaching assistants walk around to see if anyone needs help.

"Before this whole program started, I was really doing terrible," said Xavier Johnson, "but since I started coming here, my grades have been getting back up."

The Rochester Prep sixth-grader said his mother is at home taking care of a new baby, and her fiancé works outside of the home.

When Rochester city schools adopted a fully remote learning model in September, Xavier and his younger brother attended virtual classes from home. Xavier said that didn't go so well.

"When I'm in the house, I just don't really do my work," he explained. "I just get distracted and mess with my brother, but when I'm here, it's like, I get to concentrate more and I have more time to complete my work."



Brittany Rumph gives first-grader T'Aires Cheek a visual reminder that his next virtual class begins in 10 minutes. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Brittany Rumph gives first-grader T'Aires Cheek a visual reminder that his next virtual class begins in 10 minutes.
Finding a safe and productive learning environment for their children has been a challenge for families across the country since the start of the pandemic.

Some families pooled their resources to hire tutors or retired teachers to work with a small group of students in one location.

But other parents can't afford to take on the cost. Last spring, they had to choose between working and staying home to help teach their kids.

Educator and charter school founder Brittany Rumph says this was the case for many Rochester families, and that's why she created ROC City Learning Pods.

"There were families who called me in tears who just didn't know where they were going to send their child," she said. "They were banking on having that hybrid option."
Kaleb Wilcoxson, a kindergartner, shows his work to his virtual class on a whiteboard. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Kaleb Wilcoxson, a kindergartner, shows his work to his virtual class on a whiteboard.
Thanks to a grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation, any student who lives in the city of Rochester can enroll in the program for free.

Two learning pods opened in the second week of October. Another two are scheduled to open Nov. 30 at the Charlotte and Lyell Public Library branches.

Rumph, who is now ROC City's project director, hopes to have a total of eight or nine pods before the end of the school year.

"We will also have a plan to support the community going forward because we just don't know what the pandemic's going to bring," she said.

Each location will have no more than 12 students and two or three teaching assistants.

If not for this opportunity, teacher's aide Sheba Lawrence would be out of work.

She was laid off after two years at the Rochester City School District. Now, she's helping students study remotely.
Siblings like Dante Flores, left, and Xavier Johnson are grouped together so households don't mix to help contain any potential spread of COVID-19 within the pods. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Siblings like Dante Flores, left, and Xavier Johnson are grouped together so households don't mix to help contain any potential spread of COVID-19 within the pods.
Sometimes, they need technical assistance.

"Other times, it may be math," she added. "Sometimes it's just, you know, being a human being, they just get tired so they're kind of wandering, so we have to redirect them or talk to them a little bit and tell them, 'We gotta get back to work and then maybe we can do a fun game' or something like that."

Safety protocols are in place at each location.

Students and staff are asked to complete daily health assessments before entering the shared space. Everyone is required to wear a mask and bring their own devices.
Alianna Lee and her doll Sophie log into her next class after finishing lunch. Kids eat at their desks and then teacher's aides disinfect the work areas. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Alianna Lee and her doll Sophie log into her next class after finishing lunch. Kids eat at their desks and then teacher's aides disinfect the work areas.
There is a waiting list for slots in the program, and Rumph and her advisory committee are searching for spaces to host more students, such as churches or sites that normally house prekindergarten programs that are not currently operating.

For more information on the program and to get on the waiting list, Rumph can be contacted at (585) 867-1034 or brumph@bes.org.

Beth Adams is a reporter with WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.
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