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Learning Curve is WKSU’s reporting initiative examining the past, present and future of K-12 public education in Ohio.

Making House Calls to Meet Cleveland Students' Needs During COVID-19

Thomasina Drake and her sons
Jenny Hamel
Thomasina Drake and her sons, both CMSD students, receive support services through Say Yes Cleveland. Drake called Sarah Days, the Say Yes family support specialist who visits weekly with food, a friend.

The pandemic has kept most Cleveland students and teachers at a distance, but wraparound service providers are finding their way to students and families in need, even if it means showing up on their front porch.

Dropping off T-Mobile hot spots to a student who doesn’t have internet at home and is sharing one hot spot with six siblings. Dropping off a week’s worth of free breakfasts and lunches to a family at their apartment. Helping find day care options for working moms. Talking with a student over Zoom who’s struggling emotionally being away from friends while learning remotely. Calling parents just to say “hi” and see if they need anything.

In Cleveland, there’s an organized infrastructure in place with the aim of removing obstacles to education for children living in poverty. But the pandemic has changed everything for the people providing those wraparound services.

A host of new issues have been brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic and with all Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) students learning remotely, getting in and staying in contact with families has offered new challenges. But the thrust of the work remains the same: Find the needs and get them filled by connecting families to services.

Michael Copeland: Mound STEM School Wraparound Site Coordinator

As Michael Copeland gets out of his car and walks toward a house, 15-year-old Frank Kilgore and some of his brothers and sisters run to the door to greet him. Copeland hands Kilgore two boxes, each with a T-Mobile internet hot spot inside. 

The Kilgore family doesn’t have internet access, so the kids have been relying on hot spots to learn remotely this school year. That hasn’t made learning online easy, Kilgore said.

“We actually had two and one is not working. We have another one, but it's slow because seven people are on one of them,” Kilgore said. “And it’s too slow.”

Michael Copeland with Kilgore family
Jenny Hamel
Michael Copeland, a wraparound service coordinator at Mound STEM school, dropped off two T-Mobile hotspots for the Kilgore family. He also gave some words of encouragement to eighth-grader Frank Kilgore.

He’s an eighth-grader at Mound STEM School in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood. That’s where Michael Copeland and University Settlement come in. As wraparound site coordinator for the school for the last four years, Copeland has been providing support services to students and families in need as part of the Broadway-P16 program, funded by the Third Federal Foundation.

And the scope of what Copeland is helping with has expanded since the pandemic hit.

When “Mr. Copeland,” as the students and families call him, asks how remote learning is going, Kilgore responds that his grades aren’t where he wants them to be.

“Because it's hard to turn in the work and it’s hard to do the work, ‘Cause you’re on a laptop. If I was in school, it'd be easier to turn in the work ‘cause I’m right there in class,” Kilgore said.

Frank Kilgore
Jenny Hamel
Frank Kilgore, an eighth-grader at Mound STEM School, said remote learning has been difficult, particularly because he's had to share hot spots with six siblings, which makes internet connection slow.

Copeland hopes the extra hot spots will help, and he gives the 15-year-old some words of encouragement before he leaves the front steps of the house.

“All you can do is do the best you can do,” Copeland said to the teenager. “You know, just make sure you do all your work. Make sure you continue to log on to the computer, log on the classes and just make the most of it.” 

When CMSD first closed its buildings as a result of COVID-19 last spring, surveys found nearly two-thirds of the students did not have internet access at home. Kurt Karakul, president of the Third Federal Foundation, said the digital divide has been a “huge challenge” for the school district.

“So you're trying to create education for two-thirds of your families who don't even have access. So a major portion of what they tried to do was to get access for families,” Karakul said. “But it really shows once again the total inequities of what happens with poor families and what happens with rich families.”

Copeland said making sure students have working laptops and internet access has been a top priority during the pandemic.

When family members get sick, he helps connect them to free COVID-19 test sites. New issues compound existing ones, like food insecurity, that blankets high-poverty areas.

“You got jobs that were at stake, you got food. And just home resources,” Copeland said. “We've had utility and rental assistance needs this year. You know, we had a house fire, floods. So you've got all this plus a pandemic.” 

Michael Copeland at Mound STEM School
Jenny Hamel
With funding through the Third Federal Foundation, Michael Copeland has been providing support services to the students and families at Mound STEM School for the past four years.

And Copeland finds himself doing even more drop-offs this year, as families have transportation issues or stay at home to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

On a Monday run of home drop-offs, Copeland gives a Dave’s grocery and some restaurant gift cards to Amber Baker. She stays home with her infant and two older daughters, who are learning remotely, while her husband works. Baker knows she can turn to the Mound school community when “times are hard.” 

“Even for Thanksgiving dinner,” Baker said, “we were just paying, you know, catching up on bills and stuff ... I really hate to ask because another family could use it, but I needed a Thanksgiving gift card for my family.” 

The Baker family
Jenny Hamel
Amber Baker watches over her two daughters, who are learning remotely because of COVID-19. Baker's daughter Katie, a Mound STEM student (right), was an America SCORES poetry slam winner last year.

Beyond drop-offs and wise words for teenagers on front porches, Copeland regularly reaches out to families by phone or Zoom. People like Curtis Prince and his wife, who are raising two grandchildren whose mom passed away last year. 

“The hardest thing is just kind of, like, starting over again,” said Prince, talking with ideastream over Zoom. “I guess God doesn’t put more on you than you can handle. You just do what you have to do.”

But the Princes have needed guidance as they navigate new territory raising their grandchildren. So Copeland has steered them towards tutoring and enrichment programs, which are just starting back up virtually. Prince said all of the wraparound services available through the school have helped him and his wife help his granddaughter academically.

“Because we stay on her, our granddaughter, we stay on her about stuff and she gets stuff done and she understands stuff a little bit better, I think, because we help her at home,” Prince said.

With all the students at home, it has been harder to know who needs help and to make sure the families are getting the services they need, Copeland said, adding that he and the staff at Mound have adapted and are doing the best they can until students are back on campus again.

The Baker family
Jenny Hamel
In addition to receiving support services through Mound STEM school, Baker stays involved with the school, recently as a "parent-partner" helping other families in need of help.

Arnisha Rogers and Sarah Days: Say Yes Cleveland Family Support Specialists

Last year, Say Yes Cleveland Family Support Specialist Arnisha Rogers would often invite a group of students on campus to have lunch with her. It was a good way to touch base with the students, find out how they were doing, and to see if anything was going on at home, said Rogers.

Obviously, this school year is different forcing Rogers to be creative when it comes to getting in touch with students and families, she said.

It’s the same situation for Sarah Days, the Say Yes family support specialist at Campus International School, who has texted every single family at the school this year.

“I have made tons of phone calls, even if a family doesn't explicitly say they need assistance with resources, I still like to call,” Days said. “Just to check in on people again, get my name out there, introduce myself one more time, because I feel like kids are really struggling with not being able to see their friends or be in classes or have the schedule that they're used to.” 

Rogers and Days are two of the 46 family support specialists currently deployed by the Say Yes Cleveland program at CMSD and partner charter schools. Each is assigned to a school to help connect families with support services and to remove “barriers to education.”

Sarah Days
Jenny Hamel
Sarah Days is a Say Yes family support specialist assigned to Campus International School with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

The ultimate goal of Say Yes is to provide students with an equitable K-12 education and get them college- or career-bound. The program currently has 1,000 CMSD graduates in college on a Say Yes scholarship.

The pandemic has introduced new “seasons of needs,” said Rogers, who provides support services to pre-kindergarten through eighth-graders at Mary Bethune School

“Because that need that was in the beginning of the pandemic changed to the need that is now. In the beginning, when the pandemic started, we all transitioned remotely and need was technology, internet services,” Rogers said. “Then it was day care. ‘What I was going to do with my kids? They usually go to school and I go to work.’ Then the need changed to ‘I don't know how to log on my laptop.’”

Food insecurity also has been a big issue for CMSD families, and family support specialists have been working to get families free meals.

“I've been able to have great partners, an organization where I can come and get the food and deliver it to the families or deliver it to the schools where they can sometimes go up there and get food, lunches from the schools,” Rogers said. “So, I try to make it as convenient for them as possible.”

Days does regular food drop-offs to families on Mondays and Tuesdays, with free meals provided by CMSD. On Tuesdays, she can get enough breakfasts and lunches to last the students a week.

Sarah Days gives food to Drake family
Jenny Hamel
Say Yes family support specialist Sarah Days hands a box of free meals provided by CMSD to the Drake family at their Cleveland apartment.

“So that has been a big issue for families, just feeling comfortable to go out of the house. Some of our families are just not able to get there either. They have little ones at home that they have to be there to make sure they're completing their schoolwork or it's just not feasible,” Days said. “So I do a lot of lunch deliveries, which has been another really great way for people to actually see who I am. I just drop it off on their porch, text them that it's outside. And at least I'm not just a stranger over the phone.”

Every week, Days drops off free breakfast and lunches at Thomasina Drake’s Cleveland apartment, which she shares with her young sons.  

“I told her [Days] one time that our refrigerator was bare, and that was before she started dropping off the food, and that I couldn't get the transportation to go get it,” Drake said. “Two days later, she was on it and has been on it ever since.”

But the food drop-offs are more than just a delivery, said Drake, who calls Days a “friend” with a lending ear whenever she stops by.

“If she can't give me the answers or suggestions or the advice at the time, she'll do the research. We know she'll come back to me with that. It's been quite a few incidents where we've even had private time with personal counseling,” Drake said. “She [Days] also reaches out to my kids to let them know this is a learning process. It's a growing process.”

Sarah Days with Drake family
Jenny Hamel
Say Yes Family Support Specialist Sarah Days speaks with CMSD parent Thomasina Drake after making a meal drop-off.

Talking to students who are feeling “really down” because they have to stay away from school has been another big issue during the pandemic, Days said.

“I have a lot of parents use the word ‘depressed,’ and I think that goes back to kids just being stuck in the house,” Days said. “They haven't seen their friends for almost a year. School can be an escape for a lot of kids, and they just don't even have that experience to get out of the house and do something different.”

The support specialists also have been helping families who have received eviction notices and don’t know where to go, Rogers said.

“They don't know what to do,” Rogers said. “So I can refer them to our legal services, so they can get that additional help and kind of have someone hold their hand along the way.”

There have been lows this year, for the service providers, too. Finding out students have passed away, “not due to COVID, but due to life,” has been the low point for Rogers.

But the high point came after she helped a CMSD mom with an application and informed the parent that she could print, sign and fax those papers from a public library. It was something the parent had never thought to do and didn’t know was an option. Rogers gave her instructions and waited to see if the parent was successful. 

“So, I got a call from her and she's like, ‘I went, I did it!,’” Rogers said. “How I thrive, that is, how I'm driven, is by helping someone else and helping them – not just doing it for them, but showing them and talking them through ways that they can get it done for themselves.”

Beyond the pandemic, Say Yes aims to have a family support specialist at every CMSD school and partner charter school by 2023. The Mandel Foundation recently announced a $500,000 contribution specifically for Say Yes support services.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit https://www.wcpn.org.

Learning Curve is a statewide media collaborative focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing K-12 public education in Ohio.

Our partners include WCPN, WOSU, WVXU, WYSO and The Devil Strip.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”