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Cleveland Learning Pods Offer Relief To ESL Students Struggling In Pandemic

A small group of Hispanic Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) students attend virtual-only classes at Cleveland nonprofit Esperanza, Inc’s offices on West 25th Street. [Conor Morris / Report for America via the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative]
A small group of Hispanic Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) students attend virtual-only classes at Cleveland nonprofit Esperanza, Inc’s offices on West 25th Street.

By Conor Morris, for the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative

On the fourth floor of a big building overlooking West 25th Street in Cleveland, a small group of young children sit beneath a ribbon of international flags – masks on, headphones in, spaced about six feet apart – in front of computers.

Save for the occasional murmuring of English and Spanish as staffers check on the students, it’s blissfully quiet and calm.

This “learning pod” at the Cleveland nonprofit Esperanza, Inc. is filling an important need for a small number of Hispanic Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) students during the pandemic: A safe place, with reliable Internet, and staff poised to help at a moment’s notice in English or Spanish.

Victor Ruiz, executive director of Esperanza, said the learning pod – which has room for 25 or so students – is an essential way to help English-language-learning students who otherwise would be left behind during the pandemic.

“We’re hearing of kids just not showing up to [virtual] school,” Ruiz said.

The calm environment and the ready aid from Esperanza staffers has helped seventh grader Efraniel Rivera and her younger brother Dialeyshka get caught up on some of their work. It was a little hectic trying to learn at their small near-West Side Cleveland apartment, with their 4-year-old brother, their mother and their uncle all staying under one roof, Efraniel Rivera said.

“It was hard to hear what the teacher was saying,” she said.

The learning pod at Esperanza is one of 24 locations in Cleveland – funded by the Cleveland Foundation and United Way of Cleveland – where almost 800 CMSD students go on a daily basis to do their virtual-only classwork. Editor’s Note: Reporter Conor Morris’ salary is partially funded by the Cleveland Foundation.

These students are the ones who are struggling the most with online-only work: homeless students, poor students and English-language learners. Importantly, Esperanza is also one of only two such pods that focus on helping to ensure that English learners do not fall behind on their education.

Online learning during the pandemic has been difficult for the most vulnerable populations of students in the Unites States, especially poor students of color and those learning English. A recent study from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank for liberal immigration policy, found that in spring 2020 when school districts first closed their doors, many English learners (commonly referred to as English as a Second Language or ESL students) either weren’t logging in, or couldn’t.

In Chicago, slightly more than half of English learners were logging in at least three days per week, while at Los Angeles Unified School District, less than half of English learners participated in remote instruction, a rare 20 percent lower than their native-English-speaking peers. At CMSD meanwhile, the average daily log-in rate during fall 2020 was close to 64 percent.

Senaida Perez, a family engagement and student support coordinator for CMSD, said many English learners are falling behind because their caregivers – usually parents and grandparents – often can’t provide the help they normally get in the classroom. Either those caregivers are working, and aren’t present when their students run into trouble with the online learning software, or they simply don’t have the knowledge to help them. Many parents and grandparents of English learners have limited English proficiency themselves. Some also don’t know much about computers or the Internet, Perez said.

“As soon as there’s a glitch, they [parents] don’t know what to do, and they just let it go,” she said. “So then the kids get behind.”

Recognizing some of the challenges students faced with online learning, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio pivoted in August 2020 to run 18 different “ ClubSmart Centers” in the region. These are physical locations where children can come during the school day to be supervised, very similar to the CMSD learning pods, but open to any students.

Two of those centers – at the Riverview Welcome Center and the City Life Center in Cleveland – serve a majority Spanish-speaking population, said Boys and Girls Clubs of NEO spokesperson Amy Skolnik.

Alex Rivera, club director at the Riverview site, said the learning center has been a boon for both caregivers and English learners alike.

The lack of in-person support  – which these students would get when in a normal classroom –  coupled with a learning portal that can be confusing to both caregivers and students adds up, Rivera said.

“We have seen some of our members come in with 100+ assignments that they haven’t done yet,” Rivera said.

With work and time, Rivera’s staff, all of whom speak Spanish, has been able to steadily catch those students back up, he said. 

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative , which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including ideastream. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America . Claudia Longo, a writer with La Mega Nota , contributed to this story