Betsy Renzo, a mom of two elementary school-aged kids and a teacher-turned-program manager with Wilmington’s Social Contract, first started hearing about learning pods earlier in the summer.
“‘Pods’ became the word of the summer,” she said, of the concept of families pooling their money to hire educators to teach small groups of children at home during the pandemic. “As I heard them talking about it, it very quickly dawned on me that this was going to be a problem for our students who can’t afford to hire a tutor.”
While the decision to keep most public and charter school classrooms in Delaware virtual for at least the first six weeks of the school year is a positive from a public health standpoint, remote learning threatens to widen the education gap, which disproportionately affects Black and Latinx students in Wilmington and Dover.
That gap has long been a priority for Social Contract. This summer, it’s bringing a new program led by Renzo and launched in partnership with Summer Collab, Network Connect, Strive and the Community Education Building: the nonprofit WAVE, with its mission of educational equity for distance learning.
WAVE started as a summer enrichment program for kids who didn’t — or weren’t able to — log into remote classes in the spring. In order to keep it within CDC recommendations, students worked in groups of eight with an adult learning guide, which WAVE’s website describes as “tutors that are trained to go way above and beyond providing academic support.”
“It was a pretty successful program,” said Renzo. “[The guides] had meaningful mentorship relationships with the students.”
With virtual school a reality for so many students this fall, and the learning pod concept becoming increasingly popular as a way to maximize remote learning, WAVE evolved the summer program into a pod program of sorts, aimed at building equity in education.
The initial partner schools are the downtown Wilmington predominantly Black charter schools Kuumba Academy, Freire and Great Oaks, which are offering students learning guides at an eight-to-one ratio free of charge to families that lack childcare options. The program, Renzo says, is subsidized by grants and philanthropy, as well as sales of the program to individual families who can afford it.
"Kids just really want to be heard and seen and any kid that gets individualized attention is going to be able to succeed."
“It’s sort of a Toms Shoes model where you get the service but you’re also giving the service to a family,” she said. Though somewhat complicated by the state’s childcare regulations, which require a license to hold a learning pod in the home, it’s off to a promising start.
Another WAVE pilot seeks to make the program a benefit offered by employers, either across the board or by subsidizing it for employees who need it. In this version of the program, employees are able to return to the office and bring their children, who go to a separate, distanced area with their pod for the day.
The first employer to pilot the program in the Buccini Pollin Group (BPG), the downtown development company that employs everything from baristas to engineers to office workers and executives.
“They said, ‘We want to pay for a pod for everyone so that nobody has to pay anything’ — so they’re fully sponsoring the pod,” Renzo said. To start, 10 slots were offered to BPG employees, and snatched up quickly.
They’re using the Brandywine Building, one of BPG’s downtown properties, for the pods: “They have all of this this extra space in the building — two full floors that used to be law offices — so they can be super socially distant. They each can have a cubicle or even have ago to a window office to take a test.”
WAVE, Renzo notes, is not a standalone curriculum. Rather, the guides help students through their own schools’ curricula, according to its schedule.
“It’s also social emotional support and behavior management,” she said. “They have these huge conference rooms where they can do a fun engaging activity and keep the kids active.”
As for making WAVE accessible to public school students whose families can’t afford it? It’s a goal of the program, but Renzo said she believes it can’t happen without the support of the state and the school districts.
“We have to get more funding before we can open it up,” she said. “We’re hoping to partner with other school districts like Red Clay and Brandywine and offer it on a sliding scale based on need. The government needs to be paying for this program, basically; we’re doing it because the government isn’t, and the only thing that’s preventing us from doing it in certain places is the government, so it’s been frustrating. Because if the schools can pay for it through funding, it would be free for the families.”
Not only does Renzo hope that WAVE’s child-centered approach to virtual learning catches on, she hopes some version of it continues for the long term.
“Kids just really want to be heard and seen and any kid that gets individualized attention is going to be able to succeed,” she said.