Assistant Superintendent Vito Perrone and Superintendent Tim Connor, both in the West Springfield Public School District, were already aware of the creativity of CES After School Programs as CES staff stepped up in April of 2020 and through the summer months to support students virtually.
In the middle of the pandemic, with students at home for the foreseeable future, CES provided virtual enrichment and engagement to their students across the Valley in 21st Century programs. They offered enrichment activities that could be implemented online already, and expanded to new offerings in areas like movement work, social justice, and even computer coding.
With this in mind, Perrone and Connor reached out to Chris Taggart, the Director of CES 21st Century Community Learning Centers. As COVID continued into the fall, it was clear that students would be learning remotely for a time. In response, they wanted to create an innovative support program for both students and their parents and families. West Springfield’s students had been provided with 1:1 chromebook devices already, but as fall approached, both students and parents would need support in order to access remote learning in the fall through their technology.
The group worked together to create a proposal for CARES Act funding for a new program. Seven different West Springfield schools participate in the resulting program, which makes online support available during after school “Office Hours”. The program’s design addressed the CARES Act focus on Family Engagement. Teachers provide basic support with Chrome book challenges as well as remote learning support in general to students in need, and to their family members trying to support their learning. If families have problems with their internet service, they are referred to the West Springfield Public Schools’ IT department for follow up.
The services, managed by CES supervisor Katy Graveline, started up on September 20th and will continue at least through October 22nd. It’s unclear how long kids might be learning remotely, but the need for help with technology and remote learning was clear. Support is offered from Sunday to Thursday each week, from 5-7 pm for the elementary schools and from 6-8 pm for middle and high school students.
“We had to staff up very quickly to support the program with highly qualified teaching staff,” said Taggart. A new development surfaced from the district’s Evaluation Team Leader, who is identifying students that might need additional and specialized support from teachers with a special education qualification. While this project is not an intervention service for students on IEPs, it will provide support for those students. The program is adding teachers with the additional qualification.
A benefit of the virtual office hours is that the CES program staff are not physically located in one or another building. The staff providing specific knowledge and skills in special education, and bilingual staff when needed, can support students and families no matter which school they attend.
Referrals for support are made to the program by the West Springfield school district. The district communicates with parents and families, and the CES program makes visits available online so that families and students can see how it all works.
Because the CES program is managed by the collaborative, and program hours are after school, Taggart can hire teachers who may already work in the district and be familiar with the schools, or reach out to attract experienced teachers from outside the district if needed.
The online support is provided one on one, in online breakout rooms. There are plenty of staff available to help – each school has 6-7 teachers available for sessions at any one time. The program has “gatekeepers” who manage entry and exit from the breakout rooms to ensure that only the students and families receiving help are present with staff.
“The program is really just getting started,” said Taggart. “We’re getting more and more visits as things move forward. It’s hard to know how long this will be needed or how much it will grow, but we can definitely scale up to expand the program in West Springfield, or even add new programs for other school districts. We’re excited to be able to provide timely, needed support so that students can learn more easily.”
Taggart and his team also continue to manage twelve 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLCs) this fall. Nine are fully remote, and three run as hybrid models. In addition, there are two fee for service sites. The first after school program at CES was started over twenty years ago, and this work has expanded over time to serve over 750 students each year. For more information about the CES After School and 21st Century Community Learning Centers, or if you are interested in a virtual support program for your district, please visit the website or contact Chris Taggart, email@example.com.