When MMSD announced in July 2020 it would begin the school year virtually during the severity and uncertainty of COVID-19, community leaders at Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership and Development began developing a plan for in-person learning pods. The coalition’s goal was simple: to provide students in Madison’s underserved communities with free, supervised assistance in a safe environment as they navigate virtual learning.
Ozanne Anderson, Nehemiah’s director of youth development and education, was working on programming for the pods with a team of community educators when she received a call from management at The Pines Apartments and Townhomes located in Fitchburg’s Hatchery Hill neighborhood.
The Pines wanted to partner with Nehemiah to transform its basement-level media room into a socially distanced learning pod for students who lived there and attended MMSD schools including Chavez Elementary, West High and other schools outside of the district.
The Pines had previously provided after school programming for Chavez students in the building’s media space before the pandemic closed schools, but had to shut down their programming or come up with a way to support students according to the state’s COVID-19 educational mandates and recommendations.
"When the opportunity with The Pines came about, it was a great way to partner with schools and help students in a controlled and safe community space,” said Ozanne. “We could not afford to do nothing, so we connected with Chavez Elementary’s social worker to identify the students that needed help in this pandemic climate.”
Ozanne and her team developed a learning pod model that satisfied the state’s educational mandates, presented the guidelines to Chavez school administrators and The Pines management team and were ready to support students for the first day of virtual learning last fall.
The newly designed pod features space for up to fifteen students and five learning coaches. Twelve students attend regularly and are diverse in age, grade and cultural background. The Pines learning pod supports mostly younger students in grades K-5 with a few middle and high school students that also drop-in for help with schoolwork.
Nehemiah’s learning coaches answer questions about classwork, lead hands-on projects with the students and help them with any tech or internet connectivity issues that come up. Students bring their own lunch each day and Nehemiah staff provide a daily snack. Staff also provide community and virtual learning resources for parents and families.
Everyone works together to ensure the space is properly sanitized. Each day the room is swept and mopped, there are dividers at the tables and students and staff wear masks at all times in the classroom space and outside for recess.
"When students arrive, they wash their hands immediately before they go to their table and continue to wash their hands throughout the day. We have a cleaning and sanitizing schedule that we follow daily.”
Because The Pines Media Room is located in the basement-level of the building, the space is completely separate from where building tenants reside and The Pines staff work. To minimize foot traffic, parents and families drop off their students at the building’s main entrance and an instructor escorts them to the space.
There are visual reminders posted in the room to instruct students to wash their hands, wear their masks and practice good cleaning and social distancing habits.
"We keep the space equipped with bottles of hand sanitizer by the entrance/exit and at the food table,” Ozanne said. “We also have ample disinfectant wipes for our students to wipe down their devices, laptops and learning materials.”
MMSD has had a longstanding community partnership with the Nehemiah organization for years serving our school community’s youth with educational and enrichment programming.
With more than 20 years of experience working with children and families in education, Ozanne is the director of K-12 programs for Nehemiah.
"Nehemiah is a faith-based organization that serves all people - but we are intentional about empowering and strengthening Black families,” said Ozanne. “We are committed to the betterment of our community and want to see our youth thrive in the Madison school district and beyond.”
Even in times of a global health crisis, Nehemiah community leaders continue to work diligently with local students in the areas of academics, learning readiness, social & emotional learning skills and leadership development.
The organization offers five youth enrichment programs during the school year and in the summer that develops the academic talents of young, Black scholars. While the programs are temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, Nehemiah staff check in regularly with their students who were involved with those programs.
"When our programs were shut down due to the pandemic, we did not want to lose contact with our students,” said Ozanne. “So we called them on the phone and met with them through Zoom on asynchronous Wednesdays to hold them accountable and ensure they’re on task.”
Before COVID-19 impacted our lives, disrupting our daily routines and limiting our interactions with family and friends, Ozanne’s team of community educators and advocates were already working to reinvent traditional school norms with a focus on students who can benefit from a smaller, more individualized approach to their learning.
"Now that COVID has forced the hand for people to do something different, we’re seeing that there are some students that are doing so much better in this virtual environment,” said Ozanne. “The attention that they receive, the loving and controlled environment that exists here in our learning podis is a part of the reason why this is working for students.”
Nehemiah education coaches will be back at The Pines after winter break in January to support students in the learning pod - a new alternative to classroom learning that Ozanne hopes will continue in the future for students that thrive in a smaller learning community that works for them.
- Marlita Bevenue, MMSD Communications