Advocates Innovate to Keep Kids Learning
BY ESPERANZA LEE
Like parents everywhere, L. Wright, a mother of four living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, quickly discovered frustrating obstacles while helping her fifth-grader navigate online school during the pandemic.
When COVID-19 forced schools to close, Wright’s daughter received an outdated electronic tablet from her school district. The device’s tiny screen, compounded by the family’s spotty at-home internet connection, made attending Zoom classes and completing online school work difficult.
Wright also tried to access free public Wi-Fi through the city of Minneapolis but encountered problems because too many people were trying to log on at the same time.
Wright’s daughter’s situation soon improved, however, after a local nonprofit was able to support her with better technology. “My child now has a device that allows her to participate fully, and with a strong enough internet connection,” Wright says.
Franklin Library in Minneapolis, Minnesota developed a “pen pal” program to keep kids, stuck at home, reading and writing during the pandemic. Photo Courtesy of Gwen Wasmund
“We didn’t want our kids to get lost in the shuffle,” says Andrew Hopkins, the Director of Youth and Family Engagement at that nonprofit, Hope Community, an organization dedicated to strengthening racially-diverse and low-income communities by building connections, pursuing equity, and developing housing spaces.
At Hope Community, Hopkins (known by most there as DHop, his nickname), and his colleagues faced an unprecedented challenge when the coronavirus hit in March of 2020. Due to the health risks associated with gathering students, volunteers, and staff in close proximity, the organization decided to shift its literacy-focused Learning in Community (LIC) program online. Now, after more than a year of quarantines and lockdowns, community leaders at Hope Community, and around the nation, are still trying to address literacy disparities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Hope Community’s LIC program was first created more than a decade ago after parents raised specific concerns during early listening sessions. At the time, parents said their children just didn’t have an interest in reading, often resulting in poor grades and scores. As a result, their kids were barred from joining more advanced classes, the gifted and talented cohorts, baccalaureate programs, etc.
“In our communities of color, specifically African American and brown communities, we’ve been saying this for centuries to the educational system. Nothing has changed,” Hopkins says, reflecting on the challenges that many students from minority and lower-income families continue to face within classrooms.
Through the LIC program, elementary and middle school participants receive one-on-one help focused on improving their reading skills. This format is especially important to Hope Community since the individualized support is best matched to the students’ abilities, as opposed to classroom settings where dozens of students compete for the teacher’s attention.
“Our program looks a little different now because we’re operating in COVID, so things are more about helping kids overall,” Hopkins adds. Throughout the pandemic, the LIC program has also been providing virtual help and one-on-one mentorship in other subjects as well.
Hope Community’s office, located in the Phillips West neighborhood of Minneapolis, has been closed for in-person programming since March of 2020.
When COVID first arrived in Minnesota, Wright’s daughter was just one of dozens of Hope Community’s youth participants who faced at-home internet issues. Hopkins says it’s a problem that disproportionately affects lower-income families due to the cost of superior connections.
As a result, many students struggled to participate not only in Hope Community’s online literacy programming, but also at school. “So, we did go into people’s houses, and set up hotspots,” Hopkins explains. A hotspot is an internet access point which allows people to connect to a Wi-Fi network using an electronic device such as a smartphone. Hotspots typically allow people to access faster internet connections than those available through traditional at-home internet networks.
Hopkins estimates that across all of Hope Community’s youth programs, the organization has been able to provide around 60 hotspots. While some families were able to independently set up these new internet connections, Hopkins and his colleagues personally visited other clients’ homes to assist with the installations. “Whatever time was needed, we were willing to put that in,” Hopkins says.
During these home visits, Hopkins and his colleagues strictly adhered to COVID recommendations, including the wearing of masks and gloves.
Many of LIC’s other youth participants also received outdated electronic devices from their schools’ devices that weren’t always equipped to handle the needs of online learning. “Schools gave their students what they had on hand, and a lot of those devices were just very inadequate,” Hopkins explains.
As a result, students who had often struggled to succeed within traditional classrooms now found themselves facing technological barriers as well. “They went from a bad in-person school experience to a bad online school experience,” Hopkins says.
Wasting no time, Hope Community then went about the task of procuring better devices. At a time when the nation was experiencing shortages within supply chains, the organization bought whatever was in stock, from Microsoft tablets to Dell laptops. Similar to the hotspots, the organization was able to supply about 60 of its students with better devices.
Hope Community has also continued to provide families with technical support. “There’s this big assumption that parents are tech wizards,” Hopkins points out. In reality, he says that parents often aren’t familiar with digital tools such as Zoom, or online features such as password security checks.
Besides Hope Community, other literacy advocates around the Twin Cities have also been addressing pandemic-worsened disparities in their communities. Franklin Library, a public library just south of downtown Minneapolis, hasn’t been able to offer access to books or other physical materials. The building’s layout doesn’t allow patrons to maintain a safe distance of six feet from each other while browsing the library’s collection or using its computers.
Franklin Library in Minneapolis hasn’t been able to offer in-person access to books during the pandemic. Currently, it’s open only for computer use by appointment.
For Gwen Wasmund, Franklin Library’s Youth Services Librarian, access tops her list of challenges to literacy. “Electronic or e-books and downloadable audiobooks are becoming more and more popular, but then access to an electronic device and Wi-Fi (for downloading) is needed,” Wasmund says, pointing out a barrier that has contributed to literacy disparities during COVID.
“The biggest challenge has been direct connections with youth and families during this time. It’s difficult to foster excitement about reading to a non-enthusiastic reader in a 30-second outreach interaction,” Wasmund says.
Although Franklin Library hasn’t been offering programming inside its building, the library has been holding book giveaways outside. Staff members have distributed books at community organizations around Minneapolis, at outdoor events where markers on the ground help keep people at safe distances from each other.
“Being outside made our staff and, hopefully, community members feel safer,” Wasmund says.
Librarian Gwen Wasmund hands out free books at a community event in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis last summer. Photo Courtesy of Gwen Wasmund
The library staff has also been writing and sending letters to kids through the library’s new pen pal program, created as yet another way to continue literacy outreach during the pandemic. “We’re writing to youth, sending them activities, and hoping they write back,” Wasmund explains.
Each mailing contains projects designed by library staff, such as paper weaving. Participants also receive postcards, created by a local artist, that they can then send to friends or family members, as well as an envelope in which to send a message back to the library.
Although not all of the program’s participants are Native American, staff have been working closely with a liaison within the Native American community surrounding Franklin Library to sign up youth participants for this program.
Franklin Library’s pen pal program participants receive letters, puzzles, games, and more. Photo Courtesy of Gwen Wasmund
Prospective patrons have also worried about incurring library fines if they return items late, which they fear will then affect their credit scores and ability to obtain loans. “Many patrons cite moving or eviction, or sudden need for medical attention, as a reason why they’re unable to return items,” Wasmund says. These challenges, especially the need for medical attention, have only increased in the community as a result of COVID.
In response, all county public libraries recently announced they will eliminate fines for most late returns. (Patrons will still be charged replacement fees for items that are more than 40 days late.) By taking this step, the libraries have now reduced some of the financial barriers preventing access to books.
Another concern comes from some community members who have a deep distrust of government, whether in the U.S. or in the countries where they used to live. These community members could include Native Americans and undocumented immigrants. Since the library is a government agency, it’s possible that citizenship status could make folks wary of being entered into our system, Wasmund says. These fears have, in turn, contributed to literacy disparities by deterring people from using the library’s services and checking out books.
To help ease patrons’ concerns, new hiring practices within the library system have increased diversity among staff, building trust with the community. “Our staff members speak Somali and Spanish which can really help folks feel comfortable using our space and asking questions,” Wasmund says.
Before the pandemic, Wasmund worked directly with students in urban Minneapolis to increase access to books. Each student was given a library card, and she often saw the kids bring in their families to show their parents how the library worked. “It’s so special when the kids get to be the expert,” Wasmund says.
Back at Hope Community, each literacy session begins with students and volunteers gathered together in a single virtual space, like Zoom. After a group story time, volunteers offer one-on-one help and simulate in-person story time through screen-sharing and virtual “page-flipping.”
Hope Community also works with volunteers through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Community-Engaged Learning (CCEL), a program which connects college students with nonprofit partners around the Twin Cities.
Jessica Proskin (left) has served as the Assistant Director for Community Engaged Learning at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Community-Engaged learning since July of 2019. Nura Agami (right), a volunteer with Hope Community’s Literacy in Community program, is currently a freshman pursuing a Bachelor’s of Architecture in Design at the U of M.
Jessica Proskin is CCEL’s Assistant Director. She says that due to the pandemic, many community partners have lost volunteers who were 65 or older, or who had underlying health conditions. These community members have been more careful to avoid situations where they might contract the virus. “Therefore, student volunteers from the U of M are truly helping our partners to fulfill their missions during this difficult time,” Proskin says.
Hopkins says he emphasizes to volunteers that while they’re providing a space for academic help, they’re further allowing kids to see that “someone actually cares about them.”
Nura Agami, an LIC volunteer from the University of Minnesota, explains, “In a pandemic where we’re deprived of meeting new people, it’s been awesome to get to interact with a diverse set of kids and have them share about their extracurricular activities. I’ve always loved kids and tutoring, so volunteering with Hope Community really makes my week.”
As for L. Wright, the new laptop and strong at-home Wi-Fi connection have allowed her daughter to enjoy an easier and more productive engagement with online school. For example, she says the new device’s larger screen has made a massive difference in her daughter’s ability to complete digital assignments at home.
“My kid is writing and reading more and is willing to try more,” she says. “This program has helped to build up her confidence, as well as help in maturity. I can see the growth and, more importantly, my child can as well.”
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