KENT — Kids who live in the sprawling Birch Creek subsidized-housing complex have long turned to the on-site youth center for after-school homework help and sports programs. 

So when Kent public schools opened for virtual school this September, the center began inviting kids from large families to use the space to study.

Word about the center’s new role as a learning hub began to spread.  

Now, about 25 students arrive at the center each school day. There are bubbly kindergartners who have never been in a classroom and self-possessed high school students, the cool veterans of the K-12 system. They settle into desks and tables in five rooms, grouped by age, while staffers move around the building — helping them log in and navigate the complexities of online learning platforms, offering lunch, keeping them on task, encouraging them to take breaks. The kids get to see friends, socialize, play a little pickup basketball. 

Elsewhere, many children don’t get that benefit at all. About 1 million Washington students are learning remotely this year, and educators worry the pandemic will exacerbate an already steep academic divide between the haves and have-nots. Families who can afford to do so are hiring tutors and forming small learning communities, also known as pandemic pods or microschools, to keep their kids on track. Parents who work from home are playing teaching assistant and solving tech problems on the fly.

But there are thousands of parents who must leave the house every day to work, who need child care, don’t have internet access or the tech skills needed to solve tricky computer problems, perhaps also struggle with English. These parents are disproportionately people of color. What happens to their children?

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A growing number of learning hubs like Birch Creek are one answer.

These could serve as a model for how nonprofits and after-school child care agencies can help, especially if the pandemic stretches into winter and spring, said Ted Dezember, a senior resident services manager for educational initiatives for the King County Housing Authority. His agency and the nonprofit Kent Youth and Family Services are partners in the Birch Creek Youth Center — the housing authority owns the building and helps pay for much of the programming, as well as assisting with grant-writing.

There’s growing interest in creating learning centers, or learning hubs, across the country, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The nonpartisan research and public policy analysis organization has been tracking districts’ response to the coronavirus. “We’re seeing these pop up all over the country, mostly in urban areas,” she said.

So far, nothing has yet been put in place in Seattle, said Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson. But to the north, seven school districts in Whatcom County have created space for learning hubs.

Helping kids attend school during the day is a new role for Birch Creek, but it’s also clear the center can’t do it on its own.

The staff is working almost twice as many hours, and it must budget for things like face masks, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer. At least a few times a week, the building’s 17-year-old computer server running Windows 2008 hiccups, dropping the internet connection and booting all students offline. Cyoon McBride, after-school program director and IT manager, tinkers with settings, coaxing the computer back to business. 

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On Wednesday, McBride was busy working on four grant requests. If the center can get more funding, it can help more kids.

Even on its shoestring budget, Birch Creek is earning kudos from the community. “You guys are really amazing,” said Netera Pratt-Gutierrez, the equity specialist for Kent’s Pine Tree Elementary, on a visit one day.

How Birch Creek helps Kent retain students

One of the big worries among school districts is that they’ll lose enrollment during the pandemic, along with the funding that comes with each enrolled child. Kent receives at least $9,472 per pupil from the state. Enrollment also impacts the district’s levy funding and transportation dollars. Every student who was expected, but does not log in, means less money.

Birch Creek has tried some education experiments itself — it’s put older students in charge of mentoring younger ones. One of its star role models is Abdul Mir, the assistant site supervisor, whose family moved to Birch Creek at a time when the complex was known for gang violence and drug deals. He’s now a senior at the University of Washington, and works part time at the center.

“These kids can see this guy who grew up in this same community, and he’s giving back to Birch Creek,” said Ken Nsimbi, the youth program coordinator for the King County Housing Authority. “I’m very proud of this team. I look at him as a friend, brother, mentor.”

If coronavirus case numbers keep falling in King County, some districts may soon bring kids back to the classroom. Still, there’s no way to know how long school will have to be taught virtually, or if a resurgence could sink reopening plans. And Dezember says many parents are leery of putting their kids back in school right now. He believes the Birch Creek learning hub should be expanded, if the money can be found to do so.

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Bellingham: Students in school, teachers at home

In Whatcom County, seven school districts have come together with a coalition of child care providers to open sites where kids can go to school. They’ve leveraged resources, gotten money from philanthropies, and offered care at a greatly reduced rate at dozens of sites.

That’s resulted in an upside-down scenario in some places. For example, the YMCA is overseeing kids in classrooms at two Bellingham elementaries while the teachers are at home, delivering remote lessons.

It may seem topsy-turvy, but this and other arrangements let parents go back to work and gives kids a dose of that social-emotional connection they crave, said Kristi Dominguez, executive director of teaching and learning for Bellingham schools.

It has also allowed Bellingham to keep some staff employed who wouldn’t otherwise have jobs. Bus drivers, food service workers and paraeducators are working in the centers. 

The YMCA is long practiced at running after-school programs. But operating a learning hub during a pandemic is different — everything from temperature and health screenings to a requirement that whenever a child has a potential virus symptom, such as a headache, the child must get a coronavirus test.

When fall cold and flu season hits in about three weeks, “it’s going to be a hot mess,” said Sharon Millican, the after-school and camp program director for the Whatcom Family YMCA. The pandemic “is challenging everything we’ve ever known.”

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Opportunities and concerns about private-only pandemic pods

As a researcher focused on education reform, CRPE’s Lake is watching the learning hub and pandemic pod experiments closely for lessons about how education could change after the virus fades.

“Better than nothing is something,” Lake said. “But some of these experiments are aiming much higher” — offering tutoring help, for example, to kids who weren’t being reached by that kind of aid. In a CRPE blog post, colleague Travis Pillow wrote that “with some additional creativity and investment, pods or hubs could serve not just as ad hoc child care, but as the backbone for a new structure in public education.”

Lake agrees. “Some of these parent advocacy groups say normal wasn’t working for our kids, so let’s reinvent normal,” she said.

Could that threaten public school funding? Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University and the author of a book about the nation’s public school system, said it’s something to worry about.

He thinks learning hubs are a long-term challenge to the democracy-building value of a public school. They may also hamper the country’s efforts, however incomplete, to integrate schools across racial and economic lines.

Public education has caused society at large to make a collective investment on other people’s children, Neem said. If that system erodes, so too could the essential financial support that schools rely on.