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From School to Community Center: Meeting Holistic Needs During COVID

At Nativity Prep, each month of adjusting and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has included unique problems, challenges, opportunities, and solutions. Throughout these challenging months though, one theme has remained the same – our mission to truly serve and empower our students has called us to go “above and beyond” the work of a traditional school. To truly fulfill our educational mission, we have also needed to meet our “community mission.”

The negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students from low-income families are in many ways doubled. Not only are under-resourced students less likely to receive quality remote or hybrid education models during this time, but they are also more likely to experience increased challenges in their home environment. As noted in several reports, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate economic and health impact on low-income families and communities of color.

Meeting the holistic needs of our students to maintain and strengthen their educational growth in these times therefore is not just based in mission, but in reality. Our current “investment” in our students would be ineffective if it was not updated to address broader family needs.

Here are some of the challenges we’ve faced, lessons we’ve learned, and initiatives we’ve undertaken in the last few months with the support of our partners like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation:

Human Needs Before Learning Needs: As the state of Massachusetts came to a halt in late March, so did our families’ livelihoods. Service jobs in industries like hospitality and restaurants disappeared instantly. Other families needed to give up or drop jobs in healthcare or public transportation because of the health risks to elderly or at-risk family members at home. Being a small, tight-knit school community, we started to quickly hear about struggles to buy enough groceries, pay rent, or meet healthcare needs.

We needed to ask, “How can we expect our students to be able to focus on learning or our families to help with remote education at home if they are worried about groceries or a roof over their head?” Working with our community of supporters, we were able to raise resources for a Nativity Family Aid Fund to specifically meet core family needs. Both our supporters and our families know that this Fund is not a long-term sustainable option, but they also recognize that this support during a crisis is what makes sustaining our education for our students possible.

Empower Families to be Educators: With the school year ending in June and not being able to operate our usual Summer Program in July, we recognized that summer learning loss could be particularly acute and problematic this year. Nativity families wanted to keep up their sons’ educational growth, as well as find enriching and meaningful activities to keep them engaged since many summer programs were cancelled or travel options too expensive.

The lesson here was to empower families to be the educators that we know they are. Nativity provided “Summer Learning Packages” to all of our students, which included academic resources like summer reading books and math packets, but also enriching activities like a math-based card game, a robot engineering kit, a youth journaling guide, a drawing and sketch set, and home exercise gear (jump-ropes were very popular!).

Being Realistic About Technology: One of the hot topics in education equity discussions today is unequal access to learning technology. Nativity has invested heavily in providing students and faculty with the technology that they need to be successful in today’s environment, whether learning remotely in a pandemic or in normal times. Our COVID experience though has demonstrated that “technology” is not an end-all, be-all. Just providing a student with a Chromebook does not ensure that they will be able to use that technology effectively for learning.

One of the issues that we encountered while back in a hybrid-learning model this year is Wi-Fi quality and sound distraction. While we confirmed that all of our families have home Wi-Fi access, many have several children learning at home at a time, straining the quality. Having several children or family members at home also means that there are infinite distractions to learning. We learned from experience that just providing a (not insignificant) piece of technology like a student laptop will only be effective if you provide holistic supports. As a result, we have partnered with the Johnson Scholarship Foundation to provide T-Mobile wireless internet hotspots to 20 families with internet challenges and 75 pairs of headphones, one for each of our students.

We know that we cannot be “all things to all people” at Nativity Prep. A major lesson of this pandemic though has been that schools cannot address educational disruption alone while ignoring immense economic, health, and social disruptions. Working with thoughtful foundations like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation to meet the holistic needs of our students and families is not a form of “mission creep” or ineffective expense, but instead a way to “secure our investment” in the future of our students and their life-long success.

Gadisa Goso is the Principal of Nativity Prep Boston. A graduate of Nativity Prep, he also previously served as a Teaching Fellow, Admissions Director, and Graduate Support Director at Nativity. He returned to his alma mater as the first alumnus to serve as principal in July.

Palm Beach Atlantic Journalism Student Interns at South Florida’s NPR Station

Amber Amortegui is a Johnson Scholar attending Palm Beach Atlantic University, a core grantee partner of Johnson Scholarship Foundation. This article is shared with permission.

Amber Amortegui

As an intern for WLRN, Amber Amortegui regularly reports for the top-ranked public ration station in the state.

The senior journalism major and incoming editor-in-chief of The Beacon Today persistently pursued the internship for more than a year by building up her resume and connecting with the station’s news staff. Amortegui, of Davie, Florida, landed one of two paid internships at the station in a highly-competitive environment.

She has covered a protest in Fort Lauderdale, the reopening of a local bowling alley following the COVID-19 shutdown and a virtual meeting of the Florida Board of Governors, which governs the state’s 12 public universities.

Amortegui impressed WLRN Editorial Director Alicia Zuckerman with her willingness to jump in. She is not shy about pitching ideas during daily news meetings, Zuckerman said, and she quickly forged a working relationship with her fellow intern. The two are collaborating on an upcoming piece about how Gen Z uses social media for activism.

“She had a lot of ideas of her own. She asked a lot of good questions,” Zuckerman said of Amortegui. “I’ve been really impressed with how proactive she’s been. She’s also been really open to learning in the process.”

Before starting the internship, Amortegui possessed digital editing skills from the podcast she records and produces for The Beacon Today, Zuckerman said. In the social media piece, for example, she incorporated the sounds of various social media alerts.

Amortegui credits PBA journalism professors Israel Balderas and Danilda Martinez for preparing students to create print, audio and video packages. She was familiar with some of WLRN’s audio recorders because PBA owns the same equipment.

At the same time, the internship has given her opportunities to work through challenges that she hasn’t faced in the classroom. At the bowling alley, for example, music blared overhead as she interviewed a couple playing in a senior league. At the protest, someone dribbled a basketball nearby as she recorded one of the chants.

“I’m really glad I was able to get this type of internship, because it is what I want to do,” said Amortegui, whose end goal is to work for a National Public Radio station or a syndicated podcast.

Amortegui has helped WLRN reach a broader audience by paying close attention to how her peers get their news – which is typically not through national media – and relaying what she learns to editors and reporters, Zuckerman said.

Amortegui said she’s learned both journalism and leadership skills from observing the team at WLRN, specifically Zuckerman and News Director Terence Shepherd.

“It’s a lot of teamwork. They don’t act like there’s a hierarchy,” Amortegui said. “They’re always open to hearing reporters’ ideas. They encourage us to take risks in our storytelling.”

She said she enjoys providing a valuable public service – helping listeners make sense of the news in a time of chaos and confusion.

“We’re called to do our job, inform the public and state facts accurately,” Amortegui said.

Sarah Peters serves as Multimedia Writer/Editor for University Relations and Marketing at Palm Beach Atlantic University. PBA is a core grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Keeping the Doors Open During COVID-19: Lessons Learned From an Employer of People with Disabilities

When COVID-19 hit, every business, organization, manufacturer and service provider had to completely reevaluate how it operated (if it could operate at all) and make predictions about an unknown future. As a nonprofit manufacturer that employs hundreds of people with disabilities across northern Minnesota and the Twin Cities, MDI has had some unique challenges to address. Our business supporting at least 28 of our customers, including the United States Postal Service, was deemed essential in March, which meant we could still operate our four facilities. However, many of our employees with disabilities face higher COVID-19 risk factors, which meant every precaution had to be taken. But one thing that remained steadfast was the foundational value of our business: putting employees and customers first.

Our model of providing meaningful employment empowered us to act swiftly, communicate effectively and enact a COVID-19 preparedness plan for our employees in a matter of days. With employee support staff already in place and strong communications between employees, floor managers and administrative staff, we were able to create individualized plans based on each employee’s health and comfort level, and determine what was needed to ensure the safety of MDI employees coming to work each day.

We immediately socially distanced our workstations and made work-from-home arrangements for employees who are able. We invested in more disinfecting products, including a sanitizing machine to quickly and fully clean our facilities. We provided face masks, adjusted shift schedules to minimize congestion and enacted policies to limit who can enter our facilities beyond employees. Complying with the state’s face mask mandate required minimal adjustments to our preparedness plan. Most of all, our employees are taking this virus, protecting themselves, families and coworkers seriously.

To date, we have not had a case of COVID-19 at any of our facilities. During the pandemic, 140 of our employees went on furlough due to health risk concerns and some decline in business. Today only 36 people remain furloughed and we are bringing back more of our team members each week.

This July marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – a monumental piece of legislation that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. It was a first step in building an inclusive environment for people with disabilities. At MDI, our values take it further by prioritizing our employees and understanding their abilities, rather than focusing on what they cannot do. This enduring belief positioned us to be flexible, innovative and responsive during a worldwide crisis. Our philosophy that well-supported employees result in high-quality products and satisfied customers is proving to be more relevant now more than ever.

We continue to see a bright future for MDI and its employees, especially on the Iron Range. We intend to hire 80 full-time employees in this region over the next 10 years by investing $2.7 million in a polypropylene extruder for our Grand Rapids facility. This tool, which would expand our offerings, requires operators and creates plastic sheets that become boxes, totes and trays for commercial businesses.

MDI is committed to impacting 2,500 lives by 2026 through employment opportunities and services for people with disabilities. And as our economy slowly and measuredly begins to plan for a post-vaccine future, our neighbors and community members can count on MDI to provide the independence, confidence and purpose that employment brings for people with and without disabilities.

MDI is a grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Adaptability Amidst a Pandemic: Why COVID-19 Isn’t Slowing Down Divine’s Nursing Dream

Divine is a Pathways to Education alum from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. After graduating from high school in 2016, she pursued a career in nursing and her goal is to work in pediatric care at a local children’s hospital. Her story first appeared on the website of Pathways, a grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, and is reprinted with permission.

Even though her graduation didn’t quite look like she’d planned, Divine, a Pathways alum and nursing school graduate, didn’t let that stop her.

“I’m really excited to start my professional life. I’m excited to be in the nursing world and advocate for the safety of the public and healthcare workers.”

Divine is on her way to becoming a registered nurse at a children’s hospital and feels it’s her responsibility to ensure those around her are well educated when it comes to health events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, she’s helping her community to stay informed and follow up-to-date safety measures.

“Through my work I get a lot of updates on how to prevent and minimize the impact that COVID-19 is going to have, so I feel a sense of personal duty to share that knowledge.”

While she’s nervous about the risk of contracting COVID-19 while working at a hospital, she’s willing to navigate that challenge to ensure the health and safety of her future patients.

“The other illnesses that people have don’t stop because of it, so I think there’s an importance for us to be there and to rise to the occasion.”

She remembers attending tutoring sessions and finding a community of peers with Pathways. However, the most impactful part of her Pathways experience was the one-on-one support she received from her Pathways mentor, Emil.

Being able to cope and continue delivering care during these times requires healthcare workers to be adaptable and resilient. Like many of her fellow Pathways alumni, these are skills Divine has been developing since she first joined the Pathways Program.

“Knowing that there was someone in my corner that I could ask questions to and that I could have their support and encouragement was significant,” says Divine.

Divine felt Emil was invested in her success. He saw potential in her and supported her passion for learning.

And when Divine’s schedule became too busy as she juggled schoolwork, volunteering, and her many extracurricular activities, Emil was there to help.

He taught her how to manage her time and prioritize her commitments, and he showed her how cultivating these skills would help make her adaptable throughout her life.

When Divine realized she wanted to become a nurse, Emil was once again there to help. He referred her to opportunities, volunteered to be her reference, and helped her apply for many post-secondary scholarships.

“Pathways really helps you see that you can do it. It helps you realize what’s inside and what you want to do, and then pushes you to make it happen,” says Divine.

Once in university, Divine faced many unique challenges, like navigating changed academic schedules caused by strikes and completing clinicals through tornado-induced power outages. Now, she’s entering the nursing field amidst a global pandemic.

But throughout it all, the adaptability and resilience Divine learned during her time at Pathways has helped her thrive.

In June 2020, Divine graduated from nursing school and is now fulfilling her dream of working in a hospital. While she knows there is still uncertainty ahead, Divine feels ready to take on the challenges she’ll face and is excited to be starting her career in pediatric care.

And although she didn’t get the graduation ceremony she was looking forward to, Divine still has a positive outlook on the future.

“Celebrating is on pause for now, but I know it’s going to happen,” says Divine. “Being resilient is vital. You have to learn to adapt to and take what life gives to you.”

A Personal Journey Influences a Future Path for PLANS

African Nova Scotians are a large racially visible group in Nova Scotia. The current workforce, including health care, is not representative of the diversity that exists in Nova Scotia. PLANS was established in 2013 with the goal to increase the number of African Nova Scotians within the fields of health, medicine and dentistry. PLANS works to achieve this goal through many recruitment and retention activities that aim to expose youth to the various health programs, assist with navigating the application process and provide support across their academic journey. Recently the PLANS program manager position has become a permanent position at Dalhousie University. This strengthens Dalhousie’s commitment to this program and the priorities for healthcare in the region.

The work of PLANS has been enhanced by the funding received from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, which has aided in the development of programs as well as bursaries and scholarships to reduce barriers and to increase the enrollment of Indigenous Atlantic Canadians and African Nova Scotian students who are engaged in the study of Health, Dentistry and Medicine.

How my journey informs my work with PLANS

I am very honored to be able to continue the very important work that PLANS has undertaken as the now permanent PLANS Program Manager. Having grown up in rural Nova Scotia and experiencing firsthand the barriers of navigating post-secondary, I know how important this program is. Lack of awareness of resources, limited knowledge of what programs are offered and the financial impact of attending post-secondary, especially in a new urban area can be overwhelming. Being the first in your family to attend post-secondary you don’t often have the supports or resources in place to be able to do so easily, and it can be a deterrent for many, including me. Attending university was not an immediate option for me following high school, and it required attending community college and working before I was able to pursue university myself. I reflect on the programs and initiatives that PLANS offers and the impact that it would have had on my own career progression if it had been in place at that time. This is what motivates me to ensure the work we do with PLANS has the largest reach possible to make sure we are capturing youth like myself who did not have the support or resources to navigate post-secondary. I believe that my educational and professional journey lends great insight into areas for future development. I have had the opportunity to work in varied roles within health care and to work with many others on interprofessional teams in various settings. I am able to draw upon those experiences to inform some of the programs and supports that are offered through PLANS. My experience working in community health systems as well as within the schools affords me better insight into how those areas can interact and how to best collaborate when looking to deliver programs for PLANS in the future.

The PLANS goal of creating a more diverse health care workforce has always been important to me. The ability for members of our African Nova Scotian community to feel represented and comfortable to receive health care services is important as is the importance of our youth to experience this. For our African Nova Scotian youth to be able to see themselves represented in various roles throughout the spectrum of health care (health educators, practitioners, those in leadership roles) is important to let the youth know that this career path is within their reach.

My vision for the upcoming year

The challenges of COVID-19 over the spring and into the summer has changed the way that PLANS has traditionally operated. A key component of the PLANS program has been our summer camps, which allow youth to experience the various health programs in a very experiential way. It gives them the opportunity to become familiar with some of the local universities, faculty and students, which is key to assisting potential students to feel comfortable. This year we have shifted how we engage with youth to an online virtual platform. This change affords us the option to reach more youth in ways that our traditional camps could not allow. In the upcoming year I look forward to the opportunities for growth and reinvention that this change has brought. My passion has always centered around providing opportunities to African Nova Scotian youth in rural areas, and my continued goal is to identify additional and innovative ways that PLANS can engage and support these youth. I am excited to continue the work of PLANS and look forward to many of the upcoming projects and collaborations PLANS has in the upcoming year. I am so thankful that I get to be a small part of a students’ journey and to be able to support their educational goals.

PLANS seeks to increase representation of African Nova Scotians in the health professions through recruitment and retention, community collaborations and partnerships to improve health outcomes within the African Nova Scotian community. PLANS offers programming, provides resources, and attends community and school events to provide health career support and preparation. Learn more here!

Staying the Course – Mentoring First-Generation College Students During High School

The President’s Challenge Scholarship (PCS) Program at SUNY Ulster assists first-generation local students with overcoming socio-economic barriers associated with attending college. Selected in eighth grade, students receive counseling and mentoring throughout high school.

The PCS College Mentor team, comprised of SUNY Ulster’s Enrollment and Success Center Counselors, is charged with supporting nearly 100 scholarship recipients from nine school districts across Ulster County. Their primary goal as mentors is to be a consistent resource for students – keeping them motivated and on the college-bound track.

The PCS college mentors visit with students on SUNY Ulster’s campus and several times throughout the year at their high schools. Mentors have found the most success in creating small discussion groups where they are able to assess student needs and offer individual attention. During their in-person sessions, mentors were able to use a career assessment tool called FOCUS2 to get students thinking about future career options based on their interests and strengths.

Rebecca Mercado with some of her students at Ellenville High School in early 2019.

“The PCS students have consistently surprised me with their enthusiasm and varied interests,” said Rebecca Mercado, PCS College Mentor for Ellenville and Rondout Valley high schools. “The College will be lucky to have such amazing young people as a part of our community!”

Students also have an online component to complement what they are exploring in their in-person mentor sessions. These sessions will offer them remote access to college readiness material, discussion with other scholarship recipients, and guidance from their mentor in between in-person visits. Online content will further expand each year the student is in the program as they move toward graduation from high school and entry to SUNY Ulster. Due to COVID-19, this summer’s College Mentor engagement session now includes an online connection with mentors and SUNY Ulster student leaders to challenge scholarship recipients to reflect on their experience over the past few months and encourage them to try something new before their next session.

In addition to providing a support network and getting students acclimated to online learning, mentors are also a resource for college planning. Through SUNY Ulster’s Collegian Program, students are able to complete college-level courses right at their high school. These courses not only give students a jumpstart on their college experience by offering them transferable college credits, they also are funded through the student’s scholarship. Mentors advise students on course options, including how courses will fit into their college degree programs.

While most of the PCS recipients are still in high school, this fall, four of the original group of six students from the 2016 Rondout Valley Central School District pilot program will attend SUNY Ulster full-time. One of the students from this cohort is entering her second year at SUNY Ulster, as she entered a year early. Mercado, the students’ college mentor, offered support with the admissions and financial aid process as well as with course registration. While two students chose to attend college elsewhere, Mercado was happy she was able to advocate for them on their road to college.

Dr. Alan P. Roberts

The lives of the students who attend the PCS program will be forever changed, noted Dr. Alan Roberts, SUNY Ulster President.

“PCS recipients not only accept our challenge when they enter this program, but they also make a PCS promise and sign our pledge book by committing to being responsible students who are active in and out of the classroom by choosing and acting with kindness, having an open mind and being ready to learn new perspectives, setting a good example for others, and making every effort to participate in PCS activities. In turn, we promise to build relationships through mentorship experiences and donor engagement opportunities during their time in high school, continuing to motivate them to act on their future educational plans in real-time.

“The students entering universities in the fall are stellar success stories who have become the ultimate beneficiaries of the support and guidance received from four years of mentorship in the program,” Roberts added. “I am proud to serve as a champion for the success of PCS students through their educational pathways and entry to SUNY Ulster.”

To learn more about the PCS Program and how you can support these first-generation college-bound students, visit our website: www.sunyulster.edu/presidentschallenge.

Nancy S. Clarke is Administrative Program Coordinator for the President’s Challenge Scholarship Program at SUNY Ulster. Fourteen of the President Challenge Scholarship students have been sponsored by the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Are We There Yet? What the ADA Set Out to Do and Where We Are on its 30th Anniversary

Celebrating the landmark legislation three decades later

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the landmark ADA legislation, Perkins School for the Blind is digging deeper into the topic on its blog this month. Their first post examines what the ADA has accomplished and some of the work remaining to create a more equal society. Read on for an excerpt and visit the Perkins site for the full post. This article was posted with permission from Perkins School for the Blind.

Ahmed Alenezi, a 21-year-old graduate of Perkins’ Deafblind Program, never imagined he’d find himself putting on a pair of gloves and getting in a boxing ring—until his senior year.  Then, thanks to the Perkins adapted PE program, in which students and teachers work to explore activities that will help them to lead active lives post-graduation, Alenezi began working on his moves in a gym in Watertown, Massachusetts. He hopes to continue boxing and possibly work at the gym where he fell in love with jabbing and hooking.

That’s a far cry from the world before Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was then signed into law by President George H.W. Bush 30 years ago. The ADA’s four primary goals include full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

Continue reading on the Perkins School for the Blind site.

Early Intervention – Creating Belief in the Eighth Grade

In 2015, the sixth and newest president of SUNY Ulster, Dr. Alan P. Roberts, arrived at SUNY Ulster with an inspirational plan to reach eighth-grade students and to engage them in college during grades nine to 12. Embarking on a bold plan of early intervention to reach all nine school districts in Ulster County, President Roberts engaged the Ulster College Foundation, Inc. in rolling out the pilot plan for the President’s Challenge Scholarship in 2016.

Dr. Alan P. Roberts and a President’s Challenge Scholarship recipient

Dr. Roberts felt that the important aspects behind the creation of the President’s Challenge Scholarship were that students need to be engaged academically at an early age, but also that they are engaged in the big picture aspects of college preparation as early as eighth grade. A broad scope of engagement was envisioned and incorporated as core components of the scholarship with the idea of building a belief in each student in their successful futures. The program started with the goal of changing lives by helping first-generation economically disadvantaged students with overcoming socio-economic barriers associated with attending college. Six students were identified as inaugural recipients who would most benefit from a mentorship program during high school to guarantee their success and make higher education a reality as first-in-family to (potentially) graduate college. Key donors met the challenge to sponsor and support them on this journey. By the 2019-20 school year, 49 eighth graders from all nine school districts in Ulster County were added to the scholarship classes. Today a scholarship contingent that is approximately 100 strong is growing by 50 new eighth-graders from all of the nine school districts to form a formidable group of diversified and dedicated students who have committed to “Taking the President’s Challenge.” The scholarship provides the solution to our students’ first obstacle – how their education will be funded! Imagine the impact of this overture of belief! Empowering first-generation college students on the path to and through college is the impetus for this challenge, and we see that impact firsthand in the faces of the recipients – and in the pride they feel when arriving on campus. SUNY Ulster assigns college mentors to PCS recipients and provides counseling and support for these students at their high school, at events on the SUNY Ulster campus, and online. Imagine a ninth-grade student meeting their mentor at a campus-based event. Imagine 10th- and 11th-grade students receiving program content and college enrollment guidance while on SUNY Ulster’s college campus. Students take campus tours, meet faculty, obtain college I.D. badges, and have lunch with the President. We wrap up the days on campus with college notebooks, hats, drink containers, and other college identified items to help our students bring home with them a small part of their newly developed opportunity.

At the school districts, college staff meets with PCS students four to six times per year and collaborates with school administration to schedule visits, monitor students’ academic progress as it relates to scholarship requirements, and identify possible support needs as they relate to student success.

Engagement opportunities for PCS students are also created at the high schools on various topics including academic planning, financial literacy, career exploration, college lingo, progress reports, portal engagement, and leadership. They also discuss college readiness topics such as time/stress management, networking, conflict resolution, civic engagement, and emotional intelligence.

This year has been a challenge for all of us given COVID-19 precautions, and so in 2020-2021, support for virtual/remote learning opportunities will be added to the programming for PCS, as well as online student group discussions. PCS college mentors will also support new PCS students as they become familiar with SUNY Ulster technology including email and online learning.

Through the college mentors, students are advised on Early College (on-campus) and the Collegian Program, which allows students to earn credits towards an Associate’s Degree in their high schools. They also learn about admissions, financial aid, and SUNY Ulster campus resources.

Belief might begin with the notice of acceptance into the President’s Challenge Scholarship program and the knowledge that someone is dedicated to their education. But ownership of one’s future is what is born once a student is engaged in the program, and for that, we find ourselves eternally indebted to those who funded this opportunity and those who continue to do so. Exposure to opportunity might have a quantified value, the cost of an education for this year, for example; but belief in oneself is a gift that stays within a student forever. It informs them in a manner that permits them to take risks and to be bold and to speak up for themselves – this is a gift that has no price tag – it is character-forming and life-changing, and that is what comes from belief.

Lorraine Salmon is Executive Director of Institutional Advancement and External Relations for SUNY Ulster and the Ulster Community College Foundation, Inc. Fourteen of the President Challenge Scholarship students have been sponsored by the Johnson Scholarship Foundation in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Online Learning and the Impact on Students – Will Some Students Get Left behind?

I believe that the pandemic created by the coronavirus is causing some significant learning issues at all levels of the education system. Early in my career I was the Director of an Upward Bound program that prepared American Indian students for college. During that time, I learned about students’ learning styles and modalities. I found that it was common for American Indian students to rely on kinesthetic learning as their preferred learning style. American Indian students also learned better in darkened environments and were equally strong as visual and auditory learners. Many students had photographic memories that were geographically based. The most effective strategy we utilized was informal peer teaching. Peer teaching worked because the students were able to communicate with each other more effectively at their level of comprehension. There are a multitude of factors that enhance peer teaching success, including language, cultural backgrounds, cultural norms, ability to interact and understand communicative instruction at various levels and many others. Perhaps we need to learn more about peer teaching strategies given our current crisis.

man holding a baseball batMany of the American Indian students were gifted athletes having exceptional eye-hand coordination. This probably was inherited from a day when they had to survive using a bow and arrow, atlatl or spears. Total geographic recall was absolutely necessary for survival in the environments that they lived in at the time. Back then getting lost would have been fatal in almost every instance. It was very important for us to know the cultural backgrounds of our students and the mode in which they learned best. One approach was not congruent to success given the varied backgrounds or our students. Our approaches to learning styles were individually focused to better help the students maximize their learning potential. Fast forward to today, where there is a considerable body of research that suggests that learning styles are questionable. I am not intimately involved in education as I was 20 years ago, thus my expertise on this matter may be somewhat dated. However, a compendium of research suggests online learning is less effective than face-to-face classroom experiences.

In those early years in Upward Bound the majority of our students were bilingual, speaking their Native language from birth and later learning English when they attended boarding schools. The primary methodology involved writing and reading following the western methodological theories and pedagogical practices which often times created learning challenges for many of the Native students. Many bilingual Native students overcame the educational challenges by creating their own internal cognitive processes and methods. Many of these students mastered both their world of learning and the educational challenges of Western pedagogical approaches. These students excelled in college because they were able to use multiple ways to process and evaluate information within their learning styles and modalities.

This was equally true for American Indian students who primarily followed their natural learning styles. Being able to learn using both methodologies enhanced their cognitive processing skills and generally created a student who was better prepared when they went on to college.

The reason that I have concerns is that almost every college has moved to online learning. This could hinder students who rely on alternative learning modalities, styles and differing world views to be successful in the classroom. Peer interaction is diminished in virtual interactions and the opportunity to socially interact while teaching and learning from each other hurts some students. As educators who have been thrust into a new learning/teaching reality, we must not lose sight of how we can best help our students.

girl at computer pc workplace home officeIt is clear that the coronavirus is not going away soon and it is imperative that we implement strategies and identify new resources to help students who need additional support during this period of time. One of the things that is helpful would be a review of strategies that were developed over the last decade to assist all students with disabilities. For example, the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has an excellent website with updated information and promising practices that will help our students achieve. If you are a teacher, it is important to be more interactive with your students. Teachers should be looking for behavioral changes, increased frustration and any other indication that the student is being distracted from learning. The website for the National Disability Rights Network is another resource for information to help guide your performance while working with our students with disabilities.

We have to continue to find ways to reach those students who are not learning and growing in this new reality. I know this first-hand as my little 2nd grade granddaughter is struggling and I know she is brilliant, no bias here. She is exactly the kind of student who could face challenges going forward. THINK!

Sweat Equity, Delayed Gratification, and One Senior’s Story of a Big Payoff

Meet Evan Cabrera, a member of the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children program and recent graduate of Lake Worth High School. Cabrera will be heading to Florida Atlantic University in the fall on a full ride scholarship as a participant in the Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholars Program. He is one of four students in the Johnson Scholars-Take Stock in Children program to receive the honor for academically talented, first-generation students. They are among 15 high school seniors in Florida to receive the scholarships.

In a recent conversation with us, Cabrera shared his thoughts about his success, some private struggles, and his advice for other students.

JSF: Evan, tell us a little about what it took to receive not one but two full scholarships.

EC: In my junior year I was asked to apply for the Leaders for Life scholarship. (The Leaders for Life full scholarship is awarded to six Take Stock in Children scholars from across the state.) At that point, that was the first scholarship I was applying for. It was a pretty big packet. (Take Stock in Children Palm Beach County Executive Director ) Nancy Stellway really helped me a lot. I turned out to be a semi-finalist. It put me down a little bit. But she said my application was really good, and told me I could apply for this other scholarship. I thought of it as a little failure that I had. But I realized a lot of people who might have edged me out didn’t even apply. And I realized it’s just some more minutes to put into it.

Evan Cabrera in Graduation Gown

I remember hearing the term “sweat equity.” I thought about that a lot. I have to put in the work now. I applied for the Kelly/Strul and another from the Scholastic Achievement Foundation. I remember thinking ‘I’m applying for two separate four-year scholarships to the same school. How crazy if I got them both.’ And I did! I know I’m really grateful just being in this position.

JSF: In your essays, you talk about some difficulties in your family during high school. How did that affect you?

EC: In my sophomore year, my brother was arrested at our house. When the police came to our house, I was the first one handcuffed, interrogated. It was traumatic. It’s still traumatic to think about sometimes, even though I know the police are not going after me. I didn’t share it with many people. It gave me insight into what I was doing in my life. (At Johnson Scholars-Take Stock,) only a few people knew. My mentor knew. Anytime I was in that environment it was always happiness. I liked the meetings we had. It helped me a lot without them really knowing.

Evan Cabrera in mangroves with trash bag

I never questioned if my school or other potential outlets were worthwhile. I cannot set my expectations too high. My goal was not to get straight A’s. I just thought, ‘let me do good and care,’ and I got straight A’s. I started my own club outside of school. That’s where I devoted a lot of, let’s say, my bottled emotions. It’s called PB4Planet. I found out there was a climate strike in West Palm Beach. I contacted the organizer and said I wanted to be involved. I’ve always been interested in renewable resources and renewable energy. I was always into science. I wanted to make some difference. I knew political change is very difficult. I started that club with high school kids to make inspirational change. We’ve done beach cleanups, we did a mangrove cleanup in Boynton Beach. It’s something I’m going to continue while in university. Since I’ve always been interested in renewable energy, I hope to become a civil engineer and focus on building homes to a more eco-friendly standard.

JSF: What advice do you have for other young people contemplating their future?

EC: It’s extremely hard for someone, especially in my generation, to see the long-term goal. So it’s hard to put in the effort initially. I think that’s the perspective of why so many people are complaining about us. For me, just putting in that sweat equity without even knowing what that end goal would be, it fulfilled me. When I started doing well in school, I had some guys say, ‘oh, he’s probably a nerd.’ If you know you have potential within yourself, don’t go for the mainstream mentality of immediate rewards. Too many guys think, ‘I have to do certain things to fit in.’ Well, sometimes you don’t need to fit in. After I started getting all this positive attention for the things I was doing everybody just started respecting me. It’s all worth it. I only realize these things because I’ve had an open mind to learn from mistakes.

Evan Cabrera is a recent Lake Worth High School graduate and recipient of a full-ride scholarship to Florida Atlantic University through the Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholars Program.