Coming together to support our kids

I would very much like to begin by wishing each of you a Happy New Year. Let us all hope that 2021 will bring many blessings and perhaps a little bit of hard-earned and well-deserved normalcy. My column this month will be a little bit different than others I have written in the past. What I would like to do with the piece this month is to help explain the overall scope of our LEARN UNITED initiative to support students during the COVID pandemic. Over the past few months, we have had many questions about what it is, who should apply, who qualifies, and how it works, so this article will be quite a bit more “hands on” than your typical editorial page column. Please bear with me while I attempt to walk you through it.

“LEARN UNITED” is the term we are using to describe the overall approach we are taking to supporting the educational needs of students during the pandemic. It was born out of a perception that schools, teachers, and families needed just a little bit more support than is otherwise the case to help make sure that students do not fall through the cracks. I think we all know the stories about kids who are struggling with remote learning… They cannot log on. They do not have the proper equipment. They are distracted and frustrated. Of course, much of this is because of some very fundamental issues, such as access to the internet, digital literacy, and the complexities of many home environments. We have also heard from teachers and families that it would be great to have some additional support to help lighten the burden and make things go a bit more smoothly.

Taking these concerns into account, we set about creating a program which addresses the technical needs as well as some of the educational needs. The first item is internet connectivity. Simply put, if your classes are online and you cannot get online, you are not going to be able to participate in class. Unfortunately, we do have many families in our community who do not have internet access and cannot afford it. The simplest solution to this problem (at least the one we were able to get going quickly) was to purchase and distribute Wi-Fi Hot Spots for these families. So far, we have been able to distribute almost 400 of these units, connecting almost 750 kids to the internet… kids who previously had no access. Each of the units we purchase is preloaded with unlimited data for 12 months and capable of connecting multiple computers simultaneously. If you happen to be a family with no internet access and no means to pay for the service, and you have kids who need internet for remote learning, then talk with your teacher or guidance counselor about getting a United Way hot spot and we will get you set up! By the way, for people who can afford to pay a little for internet we would encourage you to check out Internet Essentials from Comcast, which is a very low-cost solution.

The next problem we looked at was the issue of computers themselves. We came across many lower income families that had more than one child in school but only one computer, and no ability to purchase another. So, even if you can get online, if you do not have your own computer, you might not be able to get into your classes or do your schoolwork. To help address this issue we began soliciting donations of laptops from the community. Slowly they started trickling in. Some were great… and as you might imagine some were “more challenging.” But word soon got out, and before we knew it our friends from Getinge up in Merrimack came through for us with a donation of 50 machines. And then one day I got a call from the IT Director at Skillsoft inquiring if we would be interested in a donation of about 500 “lightly used” laptops! And then, as topping on the cake, our partners from Comcast came through with a donation of 75 BRAND NEW machines! All these computers needed to be reconfigured as Chromebooks for the educational environment and QC’d to make sure they worked. To do that we recruited an amazing team of “Tech Volunteers,” many of whom come from MakeIt Labs in Nashua. They grab the machines, reconfigure them, check them out, scrub data if necessary, and then bring them back to United Way for us to distribute. So far, we have handed out over 350 of these machines, and we still have several hundred more to give out. If you are a family that is low income and needs a computer for remote learning, let your teacher or guidance counselor know about it and they will come get your machine from us. By the way, these are not loaners. These are keepers!

Along the way, to meet the needs for physical supplies, we built what we call as School Supply Pantry at United Way. In the pantry, teachers can also get other items for their students including headsets, web cams, backpacks, markers, note pads, crayons, and so forth. Many of these items are traditionally part of “back to school” programs, but when those supplies run out teachers often find themselves purchasing items out of their own pockets, or kids are forced to go without. Our goal is to continue having the pantry in place year-round for teachers to come and get what their lower income kids need. About a month ago we were also blessed with a generous sponsorship from Amazon to support the pantry, so at least for the year ahead it will be sustainable as a resource in our community.

The final, and perhaps most important part, of LEARN UNITED is volunteer-based tutoring support and English Language Learner support. Knowing that many students are struggling with the academics, we have recruited volunteers who can help provide tutoring / homework support for struggling students. When a teacher or family identifies that they have a student who needs help, a simple referral to the program is taken and then the student is matched up by us with a tutor. This program, like so many things in our community, is also based on partnerships. We have collaborated with all our youth agencies, including the Youth Council, Boys and Girls Club, PAL, Adult Learning Center, YMCA, Girls Inc., and 21st Century Nashua, as well as the school district and Nashua Teacher’s Union. When tutoring is “in person,” then the student and volunteer meet at one of the aforementioned agencies, which provides the supervision necessary to ensure that it is a safe environment. If the tutoring is “online” then the 21st Century After School Program or a volunteer helps provide supervision to make sure that the online environment is safe and secure. So, if you know a struggling student who you think might benefit from this program, let us know and we can get you connected for services.

Lastly, an important subset of our community, especially in Nashua, are the hundreds of students who are speakers of a foreign language. You might be aware that as the most diverse community in the state, Nashua has literally dozens of languages spoken natively in our schools. I am sure you can imagine that this barrier adds a layer of complexity in the remote learning environment that can be almost insurmountable. So, because of a grant we received from the NH Department of Education, we have been able to build a small classroom at United Way which is a safe space for teachers of ELL students to meet in person, socially distanced, in small groups that are COVID safe. It is equipped with all the technology that goes along with the remote learning environment and is a place where teachers can meet with some of their students who are really struggling. Beyond that, we have partnered with several folks to build learning modules, including documentation and videos, about how things like Zoom and Google Classroom work. And these have been translated into some of the most predominant foreign languages spoken in Nashua, including Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, and Rohingya. All these documents and videos are hosted right on our website for all to use.

As you might imagine I am immensely proud of all this work. The partnerships with groups of volunteers, businesses, teachers, schools, and nonprofit agencies have made it all possible and I feel that we are making a real and lasting difference in our community. By the way, one question I have gotten several times is “is this only for Nashua?” The answer is definitively NO. We serve the 11 communities of Greater Nashua and have students getting tutoring support from Merrimack, hot spots being used by students in Milford, and laptops being used by families in Hudson. So, if you are from Greater Nashua, and one of these programs makes sense, it might be for you. All the information about these programs can be found right on our website www.unitedwaynashua.org under LEARN UNITED in the COVID-19 Response section of the site. I truly hope to hear from you if we can be of assistance and would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all our tremendous community partners for helping with this important work, because GREAT THINGS HAPPEN WHEN WE LIVE UNITED.

Mike Apfelberg is President of United Way of Greater Nashua.