Flint Community Education Initiative adapting to virtual environment

When the Flint Community Education Initiative relaunched five years ago, the goal was straightforward albeit idealistic: recreate a modern version of the Flint Community Schools community education model that was once considered among the most innovative in the nation.

What has resulted in the relatively short amount of time since the relaunch is a robust collection of youth and adult programs at 13 school buildings that include nutrition, STEM activities, literacy programs, nutrition and food programs, fitness, yoga and mindfulness, and many others geared toward all ages, from early childhood to adulthood. And now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Education Initiative has had to quickly adapt once again.

“Since March when the school buildings closed, we’ve shifted,” said Kerry Downs, who is transitioning from a role as program manager of the Community Education Initiative to director. “We’ve learned a lot about the tools that work best for connecting, collecting data and surveys from participants. Our first desire is always to do these programs face-to-face, you can’t substitute that, but virtual opportunities give us a chance to reach even more people. Can’t think of any (virtual classes) we were providing before school buildings closing, so I give our team and schools huge kudos for being nimble and pivoting so quickly.”

The Community Education Initiative involves multiple partnerships, with the Crim Fitness Foundation as the lead agency. There are community school coordinators at each school site who collaborate with the district on needs and programming. All Community Education programs are aimed at four core goals: increasing third grade reading levels; increasing attendance; increasing graduation and grade promotion rates; and increasing neighborhood impact.

In response to the pandemic and school buildings closing, staff and partners also identified three key ways to support families in the community during the crisis — helping meet urgent needs, providing increased opportunities for connections, and providing new virtual opportunities. With staff not able to work in school buildings, the Community Education team instead organized into three response teams, focused on multiple needs, including expanded learning opportunities, parent engagement, health services, community engagement, adult education, and early education.

“Our 13 partner schools shifted quite quickly to serving those virtual spaces,” Downs said. “We wanted our kids and families to know we missed them and were there for them.”

The quick adaptation and creativity of staff members and partner organizations resulted in significant and widespread impact. Hundreds of book packs and school supplies were assembled and sent directly to homes of K-8 students; SAT prep books were sent to the homes of high school juniors; nearly 900 students in the YouthQuest program received almost 800 hours of virtual and non-virtual remote learning opportunities; 2,000 sports equipment kits were assembled and distributed to students; five neighborhood virtual Crim training running and walking groups were established; thousands of care packages, student technology items, and academic packs were delivered to families based on requested needs; and nearly 150,000 pounds of food was distributed to 1,028 families at food giveaways. Virtual cooking and fitness classes and other adult classes — including a popular grant writing course — were also launched.

There was also a focus on creating as much connection as possible. Academic support workshops were offered to parents.

“Parents can get frustrated when helping their kids with homework if the kids are learning it a different way than they were taught,” Downs said. “We had Flint Community Schools staff available to ask questions and get support for how they could best help their kids.”

Freeman Elementary also did a virtual dance party, with 16 families participating. The Community Education Initiative also partnered with Krystal Jo’s Diner to continue their annual bike giveaway. Each year, Krystal Jo’s provides refurbished bikes to the community. This year, the event was broken into four weeks with safe pickup options provided and 613 bikes given away total over the four weekends.

The quick changes and additions to the programs were a result of something Downs considers a major strength in Flint — the number of community members and organizations willing to share resources and support each other. Along with partnerships with Flint Community Schools and the City of Flint and financial support from the C.S. Mott Foundation and United Way of Genesee County, the Crim Fitness Foundation also worked with or had volunteers from Genesee Health Plan, the Flint Children’s Museum, Flint Fresh, Krystal Jo’s Diner, UAW Local 651, Michigan State University Extension, and many others.

“What we’ve learned over last few months is it is very important for partners to be engaged,” Downs said. “It can't just be teachers or school staff. Our partners rallied together to make sure we’re serving kids well. We have some phenomenal partners in Flint who see a need, step in, and figure it out. That is really powerful to me.”

More information about Flint Community Education Initiative programs is available online.

This is part of a series on how COVID-19 has challenged Flint organizations that deliver education services to be innovative in an effort to ensure virtual learning tools and resources are available to students from all economic backgrounds. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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