A 'classroom' at April Hill. Photo courtesy Community Learning in theBerkshires

New ‘CLuB’ supports children, families with supervised remote learning

On Friday, I witnessed kids — sitting in green camp chairs with log stumps doing double duty as desks and foot rests — tuning into their remote classes before a backdrop of verdant hills, the audible hum of a tractor in the distance.

Egremont — As schools across Berkshire County take tentative first steps to welcome students back for in-person learning this week, the Greenagers’ fairly recent acquisition of April Hill Education and Conservation Center is suddenly looking serendipitous. In fact, the local nonprofit’s timing to acquire, steward and grow a permanent home for its youth environmental and vocational programs at the former Kellogg Conservation Center could not have been more auspicious: A scant 18 months after moving into the 100-acre, 18th-century farmstead abutting the Appalachian Trail, April Hill is now home to Community Learning in the Berkshires — or CLuB —a collaborative effort to provide South County children with supervised remote learning sites throughout the coming academic year.

A CLuB instructor and student. Photo courtesy Community Learning in the Berkshires

“We believe firmly that this is the problem facing our community right now,” Maria Rundle, director of Flying Cloud, told The Edge last week. “The lack of childcare and support for remote learning means we have about 20-25 percent of our families and kids that are about to go off a cliff, and the equity gap that already existed — exacerbated by distance learning in the spring — is going to tear the social fabric [of our community apart] … leaving behind a whole segment of our community who cannot successfully support remote learning.” This, in a nutshell, was the impetus for CLuB’s five coalition partners — Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Flying Cloud Institute, Flying Deer Nature Center, Greenagers and Volunteers in Medicine — and several collaborating partners, including Berkshire Pulse, Berkshire Music School, Multicultural BRIDGE, Southern Berkshire Rural Health Network and the John Dewey Academy. State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, has also been a staunch supporter of the model.

CLuB’s aim is to reach a real cross-section of the community; that said, “our priority is the families and students the schools have identified as needing support with remote learning,” Rundle said, honing in on particularly vulnerable populations: “We are looking [to support] the children of frontline, first responder and education workers, single parents … and our immigrant community where there is not an immersive English experience in the home,” Rundle explained.

Students learning at April Hill. Photo courtesy Community Learning in the Berkshires

Just last week, VIM met with 13 immigrant families to introduce this program and offer support filling out application forms, to ensure students for whom English is a second language were “not left out of the process” due to language barriers. There is also an effort to identify working families who do not have an adult at home to support remote learning. “You don’t want to be pulling [essential health care workers] and [educators]” from their roles in the community to care for their children at home “when [we are facing] such a crisis for health care and education” Rundle explained.

The past two weeks served as a “soft launch” of the CLuB hub. Students, in groups of 10-12, work with two designated educators to get logged onto their synchronous learning opportunities with teachers, work Rundle calls “of primary importance.” On Friday, I witnessed kids — sitting in green camp chairs with log stumps doing double duty as desks and foot rests — tuning into their remote classes before a backdrop of verdant hills, the audible hum of a tractor in the distance. Beginning Monday (as Southern Berkshire Regional School District welcomed students for in-person learning for the first time since March), the hub at Berkshire South is open. “Every child gets a one-on-one experience with an educator every day to help them move forward with remote learning,” Rundle explained, citing an emphasis on helping students to identify “the artifacts of learning,” or in layman’s terms, what the homework is, what needs to be examined more carefully. As students take breaks, they play games and do art projects and engage with enrichment specialists who offer what Rundle calls “all sorts of fun explorations,” including art, dance, music, language and nature. And it’s safe! Participants are masked, socially distant and working in distinct cohorts that do not intermingle; all COVID-19 protocols for youth are being followed, and data supports the fact that transmission rates outdoors is close to zero if not zero.

Greenagers executive director Will Conklin in the barn at the organization’s April Hill headquarters in South Egremont. Photo: Sheela Clary

“There is a clear and present need in the community,” said Will Conklin, executive director of Greenagers. “When you have the need and you have so much capability to make it happen, it’s like, ‘we’ve got to do this,’” he added from the Greenagers’ garden on Friday afternoon. Conklin spoke candidly, about the trepidation expressed by each organization’s board during a time of “need and insecurity, with so many unknowns.” He explained, “we all felt the need to step up,” in a nod to the good foundation for collaboration between Greenagers and Flying Cloud already in place. This, while coordinating with the local schools, left CLuB with a clear objective: to create space for the decades of wisdom among Greenagers, Flying Cloud and Flying Deer to converge in what Rundle calls “[an opportunity] to share the learning experiences that we believe in as educators.” In fact, one young participant put it rather clearly: “We don’t learn here, we DO here,” which, from Rundle’s perspective, is exactly where the focus will shift.

Maria Rundle of Flying Cloud Institute demonstrates a contactless handwashing station at April Hill, just one example of the things that CLuB participants will be ‘doing’ in a collaboration among area nonprofits to support remote learning for local families in need. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“The kids will get back to doing,” she said with a smile, after months at home — for many in isolation — interfacing with teachers and peers through limited platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom. As we roamed the property, Rundle stopped to wash her hands in one of several contactless handwashing stations engineering students designed over the summer. “For the most part, what we will be doing is supporting remote learning but having a lot of hands-on learning,” she said, of plans currently in the works to build weathervanes and investigate chemistry. “We are going to put together a banner of all the different colors of leaves on [the April Hill] property … and identify the chemical compounds we are actually seeing in each of the beautiful colors of autumn,” Rundle explained, adding that remote learning is not just about education: “There are health care priorities involved, workforce planning,” she said, knowing the challenges run the gamut.

One-on-One learning at April Hill. Photo courtesy Community Learning in the Berkshires

“We really feel like this is the crisis, and we have a solution,” Rundle said. That solution, to which she alludes, is “multifaceted, includes collaboration by the schools, by the state, by all of these wonderful nonprofit partners, and what we just really need is the funding to make it go.” The first round of launch funding was contributed by the CLuB coalition members, by pivoting funds and allocating operating resources to this solution in which they firmly believe; the second round is looking toward foundations and individual funders, including the state, with hopes of “bring[ing] some of the COVID-19 childcare funds to the Berkshires to help support our families.” In addition, a forthcoming $100,000 grant from the Hughes Foundation, to support CLuB’s ongoing work, was recently announced; these funds resulted from local community members sharing news of CLuB’s work and the need for it among their networks. Sheela Clary, a board member of Flying Deer Nature Center, called it “a wonderful example of our connectedness and willingness to support working families,” adding that efforts are underway to use the grant as a matching challenge. The cost of CLuB, which has been capped at $4,000 per child per year (or $20 per day, with a sliding fee available as needed), is incredibly low considering the cost of childcare alone. That said, participation is free for any family who qualifies to receive free/reduced lunch through the public school. The fundraising goal of $1 million would provide CLuB participation for 200 local students.

While the first round of applications and offers have gone out, “we have deliberately saved space in our programs for families that the schools have identified — who have not yet applied — so that we can make sure we do reach exactly those families who most need the program,” Rundle explained. In addition, CLuB is overhiring and training the educators at the April Hill launch site with hopes of opening additional hubs throughout the community as the school year progresses. “It’s unacceptable for kids to be in some of the situations they are in when they are not in school,” Conklin said, adding “COVID has pointed out that our society is so dependent on the public schools to be, at the very least, safe spaces for the kids, never mind the education and social-emotional supports needed in developing good citizens.” Rundle hopes to “use this crisis as a chance to lift the veil” on the myriad challenges surrounding equity and access in our area, which, particularly during a global pandemic, has shed light on the importance of funding public schools. “We are going to learn a lot of lessons and do a lot of groundtruthing in education with this program that I hope carries forward.”

For more information, or to apply for CLuB, go to www.communitylearningintheberkshires.org.