Covid Diary: Neighborhood House Association

covid diary
(Image credit: Unsplash: Zoran Borojevic)

Damon Carson is general manager of education, instruction, and operations at Neighborhood House Association and the chairman of the board for the National Head Start Association.

Neighborhood House Association is a 105-year-old nonprofit organization based in San Diego, California, that operates 26 different social service programs that support children from pre-birth through their senior year of high school. As part of that work, they administer Head Start programs for about 7,000 students at 120 locations around San Diego. They partner with school districts, community colleges, childcare providers, and many other organizations committed to the education and welfare of children.

Tools being used

Some of the hard resources are laptops and tablets, as well as basic classroom supplies so teachers can demonstrate activities or engage in activities with children. That's everything from pencils, crayons, and scissors to puppets and outfits for teachers to demonstrate a lesson. For example, if they’re talking about being a doctor, we have lab coats and stethoscopes they can wear.

We also partner with fellow nonprofit, which provides early learning opportunities to families who are unserved or underserved by traditional preschool options. 

Helping to educate and empower the families was one area in which really shined. They helped train our families how to log into the computers and demonstrated how their students should use the Waterford Upstart platform. They explained the appropriate amount of time their children should use the program—15 minutes per day, five days per week—what educational progress looks like, and outlined for our parents the importance of engaging with their children offline about what they’re learning. also provided family coaches who were with our families every step of the way—checking in with them weekly to help overcome any challenges or answer any questions.

Biggest challenges

One major challenge was training. Things were moving so fast at the end of the last school year that we just had to ask our teachers to jump in and start teaching virtually. Honestly, we would have preferred to do more professional development and training, as we do with any new program or approach, but like everyone else in the country, we were forced into the deep end. 

Another challenge was access to devices. In a pre-COVID world, one device may have been enough for the learning needs of a family with three kids, but during a pandemic those devices become an essential learning tool. Fortunately, provides Chromebooks free to families who need a device. They also provide internet access for families in need.

Our home state of California has offered $5.3 billion in funding for devices, software, and internet access for distance learning, but the challenge for education organizations here and across the country is knowing how to deploy available funding to have the biggest effect on teaching and learning. Just figuring out who to talk with to get students home access to the internet can itself be a challenge.

What are the advantages of teaching in this environment? 

Professional educators are excellent learners and they quickly figured out how to help students learn in a crisis. We learned that educating the family was equally as important, but in many ways not as easy as educating the child. Unlike our teachers, our students’ family members are not professional educators, and yet they were suddenly thrust into the role of being their children’s primary teachers. 

How are teachers being supported? 

Most importantly, we're trying to keep them safe. As I mentioned above, we’re doing what we can to provide them with the resources and materials they need to be effective with the virtual learning experience.

We also offer some aspect of PD at least once per month. For example, we recently had three days of PD training teachers on how to help parents navigate their role as a co-teacher in this environment. We talked about helping them become comfortable with their role, but also helping them understand the curriculum, games, and activities that we're using.

How are you supporting your students? 

Along with the devices and connectivity, we either send home school supplies or give families an opportunity to pick up supplies. We offer paper activity packets for those who aren't necessarily as comfortable with the virtual platform. Some of the tools are the same as what we offer the teachers, but I think the difference is that the children are adapting better than the adults in this situation.

We continue to meet with families virtually to determine what their needs are when it comes to learning, and we refer them to various programs. We also distribute more than 2,000 nutritious meals a week for our children.

How are you supporting your parents and families? 

We recently surveyed our parents, and there was almost an even split among those who want to come back in person, those who want some type of hybrid format, and those who want to stay 100% virtual. So the majority of our families would rather have at least some in-person interaction, but a third of our population is not comfortable coming back into our environment. So our current role is to continue offering families the academic and social support they need at home.

A single mother with two kids in school and a preschooler at home who came to us for help said she really appreciated this aspect of the program. She told me she didn’t feel confident selecting educational content for her children. She mentioned that there are so many opportunities, from programs offered by public libraries to initiatives from schools or other nonprofits, that it was overwhelming for her. She also didn’t know how to engage with her kids on their learning, so the fact that we were able to offer that coaching component for her gave her the confidence to really dig in and stay on top of the program with her child.

Did anything unexpected happen (good or bad) during remote learning that can now be used as a teachable moment for others? 

When I looked at the data from our summer program with, what stood out was the value of supplying parents with a personal coach to keep them on track. The parents would get individualized messages—whether they were texts, phone calls, or emails—reminding them what their child was learning and ways they could continue to support that engagement. The lesson I learned is that if you layer levels of support on top of the instruction for parents, or even for teachers, you’ll truly get better results. 

Anything else you'd like to add about your successes and challenges during the pandemic? 

I've never been a person who has used multiple screens, but now it's the new norm. Juggling multiple devices with multiple meetings has been a challenge, and I’ve had Zoom fatigue almost every day. It's even hard for me to watch television now, because I'm on the laptop so much and I'm tired of looking at the screen. 

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