CAMDEN, NJ — Tracy Foedisch, one of the founders of Hope Community Charter School, was always aware of the large undocumented population in Camden. But she says the pandemic helped put the topic in a new light.

It was while working with staff to be provide resources for the school’s more than 130 students. Virtual sessions but also safe in-person visits were set up to support them during the difficult year.

“In a variety of homes, one of the things I noticed was the group of residents who are challenged with English language skills or afraid to seek services because, for instance, they are undocumented,” Foedisch told TAPinto Camden.

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“I think that’s a door that’s opened for us…something I saw more when I started to go out to homes,” Foedisch said.

Hope has partnered with organizations like ImmSchools in order to train staff on better addressing students’ needs as they rise. The school also received $100,000 from the Camden Education Fund’s (CEF) new Open Doors/Safe Classroom grant program.

The program, set up to help schools better face the hurdles of the global pandemic, provided a total of $800,000 to the following: Camden City School District, Camden’s Promise, LEAP Academy  University Charter School, Hope Community Charter School, Freedom Prep Charter School, KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, Mastery Schools of Camden, and Uncommon Camden Prep. 

The grants were announced in June and schools were notified in August of the awards, which will help in the following ways:

Operations: thermometer kiosks, plexiglass barriers, social distance signage, PPE

Academics: online learning platforms and materials for students 

Socio-emotional support: social workers and parent ambassadors 

Equity: devices specific for students with special needs, specialized platforms for  students with special needs and English Language Learners 

“Grant commitments are customized to meet the unique needs of each school. CEF believes network leaders, in consultation with staff and families, are best positioned to  make decisions about how to safely reopen for their school communities,” the local foundation said. “The purpose of  the grant is to offset additional costs incurred from responding to the pandemic, whether that’s all-virtual, in-person, or a hybrid model.”

Foedisch said Hope Community Charter School used the funds to bring on a new social worker, provide more equipment to students and connect more families to community resources.

Even though the school has continued to accommodate student’s needs, she said nothing matches face-to-face interactions.

“This building is big and empty. There’s…” she said, pausing to do a headcount, ”one to five people here and we’re in different offices. The joy is gone. You don’t have all that noise. Kids running up to you, giving you a hug…I know that’s not possible now, but of course we miss it.”

KIPP, for their part, says while serving its more than 1,700 students, the renaissance school network has been cognizant of parents' mental health too

“When we shut down in March we thought this would be for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. So it took time to get long-term solutions in place for meet all student’s needs. It has been as important to check in with parents, who like all of us are feeling quarantine fatigue,” said Taylor Wegman, one of the schools’ social workers.

The school was able to use the CEF grants to hire an additional social worker to join KIPP's team, which now totals seven.

“This social worker is an advisor to a ninth grade homeroom, which allows the number of students in each advisory to be smaller,” said KIPP spokesperson Jessica Shearer, who shared that social workers double on the family support team to tailor their assistance to families. “Advisors are leading participants in reaching out to students who are missing school. This person also works with the Chronic Absenteeism Team, as it is primarily these students who are facing the greatest challenges, whether in the area of mental health or family challenges.”

Ranjana Reddy, director of special projects for KIPP, said the flexibility of the CEF grants allowed them to pivot when necessary. Once they were able to satisfy the laptop needs, they shifted to headphones, for instance, helping to create better learning environments when multiple students are learning under the same roof.

“We’ve been thinking about teaching from home as well, so we got a second monitor for teachers to help lead Zoom classes better. We thought, ‘how can we help our teachers be more responsive while delivering instructions…it turned out to be really critical,” said Reddy.

The Camden City School District will use the CEF grants in a variety of ways.

These include thermometers, a new online professional program for K-12 students and additional technology for students with special needs such as text readers.    

“The district will use these grant funds for operational, academic planning and equity needs,” a spokesperson said. “For distance learning to be successful all students must be able to access digital content. Despite having Chromebook, some students with special needs faced challenges that could have been mitigated with special devices such as text readers.”

The district has a period specially dedicated to social and emotional activities, school counselors assigned to virtual sessions, “therapy boxes” delivered to students in order to create a better environment to interact with clinicians and the “In the House” parent professional development program focussed on remote learning obstacles.

“In understanding social isolation can cause depression, poor sleep quality and impaired executive functioning, we have been able to provide students with a safe space to have their social and emotional needs met. [It] is paramount to Camden City School District staff,” said Woodrow Wilson High School-based youth services site manager, Ms. Yalonda Moore.

Since the pandemic first forced school buildings to close, Moore says different district teams - including Family Operation Coordinators and the Attendance Team - has worked to develop an effective virtual platform for its interactions with students.

“There are also frequent phone calls, emails, text messages, safe home visits and push ins to Google classrooms to conduct a well-check on a student,” she continued.

A big concern for the district continues to be the low attendance, with roughly 25% of the CCSD’s more than 6,800 students not logging into class based on average daily data.

“Attendance matters. I can't say it or underscore it enough, attendance matters,” Superintendent Katrina McCombs said in her opening at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “It matters that students are attending classes each day, and that they are attending classes throughout the day. Failure to attend your classes will have significant consequences, including truancy, referrals, and also failing grades. I cannot stress enough how important it is that every student, regardless of grade level, attend school each and every day.”

LEAP Academy University Charter School leaders have a family health and wellness center geared toward issues impacting its approximate 1,5600 student-body.

Stephanie Weaver-Rogers, chief operations officer, noted that the grant will in part cover the “Let’s Go Learn Program,” which supports English Language Learning and Special Education students.

“We also use a responsive classroom as an approach to addressing social and emotional support in the classrooms to students. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors involved in understanding and managing emotions, setting positive goals, feeling empathy for others, engaging in positive relationships, and solving problems effectively,” said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, founder and board chair of LEAP.

Funds will also be put aside for COVID-19 protocols, such as the purchasing of additional barriers, signage and cleaning supplies.

A temperature verification kiosk was also purchased.

“This grant is supporting our Parent Ambassador program. The Parent Ambassadors are being utilized to assist with bus duties when we are in-person, and as additional supports in the schools,” added Weaver-Rogers. “When we are on remote instruction, they are used to assisting with meal distribution, parent phone calls and other parent/family supports.”

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