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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.

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.

Struggles and Success: The Impact of COVID-19 on an Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program

A year ago, I posted an article on “Giving Matters” about the Martin Family Initiative’s (MFI) ground-breaking project: the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP). At that time, AYEP was offered in 51 schools across Canada and there were plans to expand to additional locations.

The 2019-20 school year started off very well. AYEP teachers were very impressed with their students’ progress; many reported evidence of students’ increasing knowledge of the economy and business, improved motivation to complete current studies and pursue further ones, increased self-confidence, and heightened awareness of the needs of their communities.

All this changed on March 11, 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. Almost immediately schools across Canada were closed – many are still unsure when they will re-open.  Students were encouraged to participate in at-home learning for the remainder of the school year even though they were deemed to have completed their courses as of mid-March.

MFI determined that the best way to support AYEP teachers and their students was to upload the AYEP lessons and supporting resources to the Google Classroom platform. We also instituted weekly calls with AYEP teachers to provide support and advice. Many of the schools that offered AYEP-implemented remote learning using a range of tools and approaches including synchronous activities.  

Photo of young woman with blue earring

MFI has experience with distance learning, but over the past months some Aboriginal student-focused issues have emerged: difficulty to complete on-line lessons, the lack of access to connectivity and devices, and concerns directly related to poverty that many face.

AYEP educators highlighted the IT-related obstacles that their students experienced including unstable or the lack of  internet connections and the need to share a single device – including one cell phone – with many other children in a family as they all attempted to complete on-line activities.

In one school, AYEP students rode their bikes to the school parking lot to connect to the internet in order to do their assignments.

Some of these students were forced to abandon their studies to find a job to help support their families. One student went to work on a fishing boat; others started jobs in grocery stores, in drugstores, delivering food, and as cooks in fast food restaurants.

Over the past months MFI has been very impressed with the deep dedication, flexibility, creativity, and compassion of AYEP teachers across the country. Besides using Google Classroom, they connected with their students using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Brightspace, Edsby, Google Docs, email, and phone. Some also delivered AYEP materials to their students’ homes.

Three students writing in books

Despite their difficulties, many AYEP students have persevered and completed their lessons thoroughly and on time. Many created video business plans for their proposed ventures instead of traditional hardcopy versions. One student was recently awarded a prize for academic merit and community involvement. Another is applying for a start-up grant to be able to launch his business.

MFI is very proud of the accomplishments of AYEP students and their teachers. They were faced with unexpected and momentous upheaval – and they are succeeding. 

Dr. Carlana Lindeman began her career in education as a teacher and principal before joining the Ontario Ministry of Education (EDU). For 18 years she worked with school boards, and First Nation schools and organizations, to improve student achievement. In July 2008, she became the Education Program Director for the Martin Family Initiative, where she supports various strategies and activities related to Indigenous students across Canada. In 2009, she was awarded the Sandra D. Lang Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ontario Government for the depth and quality of service she provided to students, families and communities across Ontario.