WILMINGTON – Showing up for class of the new school year in August didn’t feel like a typical first day of school for Devin Pellom.
Instead of running into friends in the hall, he got out of bed and logged onto his computer. After finishing last year virtually, it felt like Groundhog Day for him (and many students in New Hanover County); with the new year staring into a computer monitor. The 16-year-old junior at New Hanover High School felt disconnected.
“I’m all by myself in my room,” Pellom said.
With no divide between being home and being in school, it wasn’t long before Pellom was missing classes and assignments. It was hard to feel like he was back in school.
“I kind of just brushed it off,” he said.
That all changed when he started going to Front Street Academy, a learning pod in downtown Wilmington created by a local construction company and a nonprofit that supports students from middle school to graduation. After a few weeks of structure, his grades improved.
“I can’t do my best work if I’m too relaxed,” he said. “I have to sit up and kind of wake up. Being [at Front Street Academy] really helped that.”
Learning pods of small, in-person groups of students are standing up across the Cape Fear Region as parents and teachers work to replicate the social interaction and peer support of regular school days.
“The social dynamics of children being together can enhance learning,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, director of infectious disease at Children’s Health and a professor at UT Southwestern. “Small groups working together toward a common goal learn important lessons.”
In New Hanover County, organizations like Communities in Schools and other nonprofits are ramping up programs, but nontraditional organizations and corporate partners are also stepping in to fill the gap, especially for students in marginalized communities.
Front Street Academy, the learning pod sponsored by Monteith Construction and Camp Schreiber Foundation, is set up in a storefront near the corner of Front Street and Grace Street. At a glance, the academy looks like a store, but only when you peer into the front window do you see students from elementary to high school sitting at socially distanced tables along the wall. Whiteboards on rollers are covered in math problems and vocabulary words and colored bins sit in one corner. Tutors patrol the center of the room ready to help students with questions. Everyone has a mask.
“We were uniquely positioned to combine the resources of Monteith and Camp Schreiber,” said Susie Sewell, Camp Schreiber Foundation’s director.
Sewell said the students — like Pellom — were not in a school mentality in August when New Hanover County announced all-virtual school. The hurdles of learning new programs and being accountable without external pressures like a teacher was leading to bad grades and apathy.
“There was this feeling of frustration and failure from the kids,” Sewell said. “As soon as we were able to sit down with them and figure out structure, you could see a change. They were so much happier.”
Na’Zarius Jacobs, a 14-year-old freshman at Hoggard High School, said when he saw the space on Front Street, he was excited. He goes to Front Street Academy Monday through Wednesday. He arrives around 8 a.m. and stays until lunch. He does the rest of his work from home. He saw his grades go up after he started to attend regularly.
“My math grade was a C,” Jacobs said. “Now it’s an A.”
Down the street from Front Street Academy, on Princess Street, Leading Into New Communities, Inc.’s (LINC) conference room is now a classroom with clear shields separating socially distanced middle school students. LINC has youth empowerment programs and Frankie Roberts, LINC’s co-founder and executive director, felt a learning pod was an extension of that work.
“Our children can use the structure and all of the students can use the socialization,” Roberts said.
LINC worked with Soaring as Eagles to recruit 11 students. LINC set up their conference room to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. Like Front Street Academy, everyone is masked and has their own work station.
Kim Ceasar, founder and executive director of Soaring as Eagles, said virtual school is rife with distractions and issues. Many of the students in Title One schools in particular are dealing with trauma and food insecurity in addition to not having internet access or the support of a parent at home to help with assignments.
“We’re not only dealing with the educational part of it,” she said. “We’ve been going beyond the call of duty to make sure their needs are met.”
The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated the Cape Fear region’s opportunity gaps between Black and white students that existed before the pandemic with long term effects on the workforce, economic mobility, and public health.
Access to a computer and internet services is an indicator of academic success regardless of race. A person in a home without a computer or internet access is almost four times more likely to have not graduated high school than a person who has both. When you add race into the equation the gap gets bigger, according to recent data published by the Cape Fear Collective. A Black person in the Cape Fear region is three times more likely to have no computer and internet in their house than a white person, resulting in negative downstream effects in the classroom.
The program has taken the opportunity to not only teach a standard curriculum Monday through Friday but has expanded its academic scope to include African American history through guest lectures. Every Wednesday, the students are treated to a lecture highlighting the achievements and contributions of the Black community. One Wednesday featured a talk with local leaders like Wilmington Councilman Kevin Spears, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Wilmington Councilman Clifford Barnett, and New Hanover County Schools Deputy Superintendent Dr. LaChawn Smith.
“We use that opportunity to bring in African American studies,” Ceasar said. “Different people in our community that look like them. We expose them to individuals who they can learn about and maybe one day be like.”
Despite the ongoing issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Ceasar said the learning pods are a step toward improving the community.
“I love what we’re doing,” she said. “We have to actually do something to make this world a better place.”
Kevin Maurer is a journalist and author. He is currently the Director of Community Engagement at Cape Fear Collective.