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ArtsAltoona aids students

Learning pods offer help with virtual assignments

Mirror photo by Dom Cuzzolina Alex, an 11-year old Altoona Junior High student, works through virtual assignments on his Chromebook while AmeriCorps member Leah Klevan stands by to help.

In a room, a floor below a chapel, sat Alex.

Alex is a sixth-grader at Altoona Area Junior High. His parents work full-time jobs. After schools closed in the spring, he said he was home alone for nine weeks.

Though he said he didn’t struggle with his take-home work, his parents thought it would be best that he be with fewer distractions. Alex is now one of the first students to participate in the ArtsAltoona Learning Pod program.

Junior high students enrolled in the program will spend their weekdays at the pod completing virtual assignments, attending virtual class and doing arts activities in their free time. The pod is in the lower level of the ArtsAltoona’s education building. It is filled with 15 tables in 10 square foot sections. Each student has their own section.

Throughout the day, a monitor ensures that students are participating in required classroom assignments and completing their work, as well as helping with technical problems that might arise in their virtual learning.

Alex said he liked the pod, which is more quiet than home where his two dogs bark.

George Sackandy, founder and board treasurer of ArtsAltoona, heard that many working parents were concerned about support for and oversight of their middle school-aged children who are learning virtually.

Sackandy already sees first-hand the most extreme examples of hardship that local children face.

In an after-school program at his church on Second Avenue, Sackandy said between 60 and 100 kids show up every Wednesday night for “a hot meal, some recognition and homework help.”

“The stories I hear there are enough to keep you up at night,” he said.

Understanding the range of challenges this pandemic has created and magnified, Sackandy began to research how ArtsAltoona could assist working families and children. He came across the idea of “learning pods,” which he described as “a half-way point between home-schooling and being in school.”

The concept, he said, evolved from the first months of the pandemic when schools closed and groups of parents pooled resources to hire a teacher and designate one of their houses as the “classroom.” The concept then evolved into “micro-schools,” where an organization assumed responsibility in the formal processes of hiring an educator.

“Essentially what we have is a micro-school,” Sackandy said.

ArtsAltoona’s Learning Pod is based “liberally” on a program designed by the Allentown branch of the Greater Valley YMCA in Pennsylvania, Sackandy said, which had all of their information available copyright-free under a common license.

Sackandy said his next thought was: “What are the government regulations — what hoops do I have to jump through?”

“As I was on the Department of Education website, they posted a new policy initiative that waived almost all of the regulations for these types of programs,” he said.

On Aug. 28, the state Department of Human Services released guidelines for what it called “Non-Licensed Part-Day School Age Child Care Program or Learning Pod.”

The ArtsAltoona Learning Pod would be considered a part-day SACC program based on DHS standards, meaning it does not require licensing nor will it after 90 days of consecutive operation, a prior requirement waived for the 2020-21 school year.

To launch the program, ArtsAltoona had to notify state agencies, submit staff background checks and share a COVID-19 emergency plan with the local county emergency services.

With the pieces in place, the ArtsAltoona Board met Sept. 1 to approve the program, the organization began promoting it Sept. 3, and launched it Sept. 8.

So far, two tables are taken by students, with a third joining on Monday.

The newest student will find a fresh notebook and a small, dry-erase board at the desk. In the back of the room is a kitchen, where various paints and brushes line an island. On Fridays, when the students do not have online classes, arts-related teachers (visual, music, literary, drama, etc.) will offer enrichment activities.

The AmeriCorps Member for ArtsAltoona, Leah Klevan, stepped in as the pod’s monitor for the first week, but said a full-time monitor would join the organization today.

The program costs $20 a day. Sackandy and Board President Donna Gority said they hope to get grant funding for families in financial need.

“We have the capacity here for three of these student pods,” Sackandy said, adding that they want to be prepared for any possible changes in the Altoona district’s learning model.

Sackandy says the program will enhance Altoona’s future.

He called it a “great middle step” from the organization’s after-school programs toward a future program that carves a path forward for young people and shows them there is a future in Blair County.

Sackandy cited the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild of Pittsburgh as inspiration for his vision.

“One of the parents has already asked me — based on the experience they’ve had in one day — if we could continue this as an ongoing program,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Dom Cuzzolina is at 946-7428.

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