Wanika Steele has clocked into the same job for 14 years. But in September, she put in her two-week notice. She feared her 10-year-old son, Ty’Kir, would have no one to facilitate his new full-time virtual learning experience.

“I was ready to actually quit my job so I could be home,” said Steele, 45.

But four days before her notice took effect, as if her very own deus ex machina, the Thelma Lovette YMCA learning hub in the Hill District announced it would open for students in kindergarten through middle school. She breathed a sigh of relief. And, she could keep her job as a unit secretary at Western Psychiatric Hospital.

“The hubs saved my life because I needed them,” she said.

Community learning hubs were a critical stopgap for Steele and hundreds of parents across Allegheny County in the first year of COVID learning. Created as safe havens for students whose parents are essential workers, they became a place where the students could engage in virtual learning during the day. Many of the hubs expand on after-school services that were already in operation at community organizations. 

Hubs provide an outlet for kids to socialize; they provide routine and enrichment activities; they connect students with one-on-one attention from an adult; and they also connect families, youth and children to other needs and services. The hubs can connect youth to a safe environment and one with resources, from food to high-speed internet.

A year later, they’re still a critical need for many families and students.

“They’ve really taken away a lot of the barriers that kids and families were facing to have success right now,” said Kaitlyn Brennan, an education policy consultant and facilitator with the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative [PLC], a collective of about 70 organizations and individuals working to connect families with resources — such as learning hubs — to support student learning.

Hubs are alternative learning spaces — a model for how education could be provided differently. For education advocates, this year of COVID learning provided an opportunity to start rethinking how education is provided to families, especially to the most marginalized student groups. How can the educational system more deeply engage families and children? Are hubs a long-term solution to persistent issues? 

One year later, some think yes.

Alanah Davis (right), a youth development professional with Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania serving through AmeriCorps, helps 8-year-old Donte Lane, Jr., a third grader at Fulton PreK-5, with school work at the organization’s Lawrenceville location. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The hubs have offered unique insights into student learning and needs. They’ve seen successes, especially in the quality and numbers of partnerships among community organizations and institutions that came together to meet the needs of kids and parents. 

But some staff and hub leaders also expressed noticing gaps and disparities among students at the hubs when it came to technology and device access, academic preparedness and academic readiness, among other things. 

Though much effort has been made since last spring to improve virtual learning and close the technology gap, a recent national analysis shows Black and Hispanic students continue to be more likely to be in remote learning and less likely to have access to the necessary learning tools — devices, internet access and live contact with peers — than their white peers. 

To date, 62 learning hubs in Allegheny County (34 of which are in the city of Pittsburgh) are still serving students one year following the initial closure of schools due to COVID. Most of the students are in elementary and middle school.

Amy Malen, assistant deputy director in the Office of Community Services at the county’s Department of Human Services, estimates about two-thirds of students who rely on the hubs presently come from Pittsburgh Public Schools, the largest school district in the county and one of a few still in full-time remote learning. About 700 Pittsburgh Public students relied on the hubs in the fall, out of a total of roughly 1,000 students using the hubs in the county at that time.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is building a comprehensive national database of the learning hubs that exist for students; presently, more than 300 are listed. Hubs exist all over, including in Chicago and New Orleans. Some are managed by school systems, but 44% are coordinated or operated by nonprofit organizations. 

Even as more schools return to hybrid models, where students attend in-person and online, there is still a need for hubs on the days students aren’t at school. Plus, at least for a while, it seems virtual learning is here to stay.

Even with more than 35 school districts open across Allegheny County for some form of in-person instruction, Brennan said the PLC has received multiple new requests for learning hubs to be opened.

The disparate view from inside the hubs

Gwendolyn Marcus gets to assist both charter and traditional public school students from multiple districts at her learning hub. She noticed a difference in the caliber of academics at the different schools.

“Some of the schools seemed, in my opinion, more prepared for this than some of the other schools,” said Marcus, who directs the Project Destiny learning hub at the Community College of Allegheny College. “Like from day one, they hit the ground running. They were just set up and ready for this.”

Some hub leaders said students may not have been able to progress or excel in their classes if it wasn’t for the hub environment. 

“We’re able to provide a lot of that one-on-one that is needed to complete an assignment or to learn a new word, to learn to count to 10, to learn how to write the alphabet,” said Annamarie Casciato, program director at the Spencer Family YMCA learning hub.

Essence Hamlin, 9, Leighton Staples, 8, and Demi Pirl, 7, (left to right) eat dinner at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania Duquesne clubhouse on March 11. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“That sounds like a lot of basic things you would get in preschool, but a lot of our kindergartners needed that this year.”

Casciato said at her pod, disparities in students were stark when it came to student readiness and technology. 

At the start of the school year, some kids at the hub had Kindles or tablets, others had Chromebooks or iPads.

Jessica Lausch, association director of youth enrichment at the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, noticed some students didn’t have working chargers and are all using different textbooks, software and platforms.

The ripples and impacts of remote instruction

It’s still too early to understand the impact of the first full year of remote instruction on students, but many education experts and officials worry about learning loss and other devastating repercussions for children.

Experts, educators, community leaders and parents fear that extended time outside of the classroom will exacerbate learning loss, academic regression and disparities in learning outcomes. 

In February, the Pittsburgh City Council passed a measure to declare an educational emergency. Council members expressed concerns over schools remaining closed as student achievement dipped and equity issues grew. 

Donte Lane, Jr., a third grader at Fulton PreK-5, works on English Language Arts school work at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania’s Lawrenceville location on Feb. 24. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

A McKinsey & Company report published in December based on national fall assessment data, showed students of color were about three to five months behind in learning, while white students were about one to three months behind. Experts estimate that students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students by the end of this school year.

Black students in Pittsburgh were already academically behind in general and COVID has made it worse, said Tracey Roberson, a program coordinator at the Thelma Lovette YMCA hub which enrolls about 27 kids. Roberson has had to step in for student technological needs: when kindergartners had old, slow iPads in the fall, she brought her personal technology from home for kids to use.

Nancy R. Hornsby has seen firsthand how asynchronous, independent learning is not working for students.

“It’s a double-edged sword. So, some of the kids are tired. Some of the kids aren’t equipped,” said Hornsby, who directs the Project Destiny learning hub at Destiny of Faith Church in Brighton Heights. For example, a child with behavioral, social or emotional needs may have learning support, an adult to help facilitate, but even when it comes to the basics, they’re not prepared. “And that doesn’t come from just COVID.” 

Lisa Abel-Palmieri is president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Roberson echoed Hornsby’s sentiments and said she would rather see kids back in the buildings, sitting in front of teachers.

“Being online all day does take a toll on a lot of the kids,” Roberson said. “It takes a toll on us as adults, so I can only imagine what it’s doing to some of the kids.”

It’s not all bad news. Some kids are thriving compared to when they were learning in the district, according to Lisa Abel-Palmieri, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. 

Marcus is seeing a similar trend with her K-2 students. 

“All of my children have been succeeding, like honors, high honors students, some who never were honor students,” Marcus said. “But that’s because it’s a smaller environment, if you will, and they can get a little bit more attention.”

Lessons from the hubs

Educational advocates and researchers believe there is much to be learned from the learning hub experience, lessons that could help to shape education in Pittsburgh and create a more equitable environment for all students. 

Among the lessons: the importance of being flexible to families’ needs — educational and social — and building deeper partnerships with districts.

“I think that there is an opportunity now to understand the partnerships that can grow from this,” Casciato said.

Another takeaway from a year in the pods was that when it came to teens and adolescents, the hubs fell a bit short.

Roberson wishes more hubs were open to high schoolers. She said if she had the resources, she would open a hub for older students herself. 

“I have a 14-year-old at home all day by herself who has been struggling, you know, and I see, I hear about other fresh high schoolers who are going through the same thing. They’re struggling online, but there’s no programs out here for that age group,” Roberson said.

Of the 54 local community learning hubs in Allegheny County listed, seven offer services to students in grades 9-12.

The cost of a stopgap

For school districts, the largest cost impact of COVID-19, which will extend over multiple years, is the cost of meeting students’ increased academic and social-emotional needs, according to a January analysis by Education Resource Strategies which looked at large urban school systems.

The system of learning hubs in Allegheny County cost just over $800,000 per month to operate. They’ve been expensive to open and to continue to run, according to Amy Malen, assistant deputy director in the Office of Community Services at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. 

In the fall, the hubs relied on COVID relief funding from the CARES Act, which Malen said allowed for many providers to open. 

Abel-Palmieri said costs at the Boys & Girls Clubs overall are nearly triple with their ongoing hub operations.

Annie Morrissey, 6, zooms across the gym on a scooter at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania’s Lawrenceville location on Feb. 24. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The hubs currently in operation are receiving Children Youth & Family state funding along with funding from several local foundations. The American Rescue Plan includes dollars to address learning loss and fund after-school programs, among other initiatives, which advocates say could be used toward learning hubs. 

At the end of 2020, the hubs in Allegheny County were on the brink of closure, when the initial funding for the hubs began to dry up. In response, the PLC asked the city’s school district to contribute $2 million for continued hub operations and to stop the closure of some hubs. The district, which faced a deficit at the time of its budget vote, did not add money to the budget for community learning hubs. 

Eventually, the county’s Department of Human Services stepped in with child welfare dollars allocated to Children Youth and Families (CYF) to keep the hubs up and running. Hub leaders also turned to alternative revenue sources, including grant funders.

Brennan is hoping for a future in which funding of learning hubs is part of the overarching structure of education funding.

“We know that school districts traditionally are appropriated funds based on the funding formula from federal dollars. But we know that the community learning hubs have been an instrumental part of serving the students who those districts are responsible for,” she said. “So how can the district partner with our community learning hubs to provide funds, to provide transportation, to provide perhaps professional development, right, and staffing opportunities?”

Deonjre Jackson, 8, plays basketball in the gym at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania Duquesne clubhouse on March 11. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

While the cost to keep hubs running may seem like a lot, the price of closing them is even higher.

Without the learning hubs, increased inequities, academic and socioeconomic divides will grow for children and families, according to Pittsburgh-based Remake Learning Network, which offered learning hubs in Pittsburgh through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.

Even if the hubs go away eventually, most hub workers who spoke with PublicSource said they would cherish the memories of working with the kids this year and helping them with their education through the pandemic. While the job was exhausting and demanding, it was rewarding all the same.

“There’s going to be a time in life when you look back,” Marcus said, “and you’ll be so honored that you played some kind of part in this time of children’s lives when things were this crazy.”

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org.

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TyLisa C. Johnson

TyLisa C. Johnson is the Audience Engagement Editor at PublicSource. She’s passionate about telling compelling human stories that intersect with complex issues affecting marginalized groups. Before joining...