The sudden shift to remote learning due to COVID-19 rippled across the Normandy Schools Collaborative in uneven waves. Some of the district’s 3,100 students were ready to learn from home from the outset, equipped with computers and internet access. Others didn’t have the electronic devices and online connections they needed to participate in all-online classes and assignments.
Identifying the students’ technology needs and addressing this crucial gap was a key component of the first phase of Normandy’s emergency response at the end of March. While administrators and staff were revamping lesson plans so they could be offered online, they were also surveying families to project how large the need might be and coming up with a plan to address it.
Two key staff members in this effort were Tina Clark-Scott, Assistant Superintendent for Academics and Support Services, and Teri Green, the Director of Technology. Working together, they surveyed families of the district’s 3,100 students and, based on the responses, projected that roughly a third would need either laptops or hotspots or both.
“We had 24 hours to come up with a plan,” Green recalled with a wry laugh. “I make a joke that we’re TNT dynamite because I don’t know how we did it.”
Their data suggested that 650 Chromebooks would be needed. When Dr. Jerri Johnson, the Director of Education for the Community Impact Network, heard about their efforts, she reached out to suggest they apply for one of the Emergency Services Funding grants that were available to members of the Network’s Coalitions.
In its day-to-day work, the Community Impact Network convenes a variety of partners in order to help organize and facilitate the delivery of resources and services for people living in the Normandy Schools Collaborative footprint. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the St. Louis area, the Network formed and funded an emergency relief task force which included Operation Food Search, the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, Affinia Healthcare, Beyond Housing, United 4 Children, the Society of St. Vincent DePaul, and the Normandy Schools Collaborative. These partners received grant funding from the Network for immediate needs within the community—collectively addressing issues including food insecurity, rent and utility assistance, COVID-19 testing, and more.
The Normandy Schools Collaborative’s grant application included funding for financial assistance for parents in the Normandy schools’ Families in Transition program to help with utilities, rent, food, and other basic essentials as well as funding for the purchase of 500 Chromebooks.
“When we reached out and told them what we needed, the response was automatic,” Clark-Scott said.
That’s exactly what the Community Impact Network intended, according to Managing Director Dr. Jaison K.D. McCall. “Some things just make so much sense there’s no reason whatsoever to hold back.”
The laptop purchases provide a case study of the importance of both keeping end goals in mind and maintaining flexibility. For example, Green had already drafted a plan for the district’s long-term goal of providing a device to every student, Green and Clark-Scott were able to use it as the basis for an impressively thorough grant request that included the equipment itself as well as plans for securing and tracking the devices—and for having students turn them in after the school year ends on May 29th. “We didn’t have a process for kids taking devices home,” Green said, “so we had to come up with all of that.” They also touched base with vendors to secure the best possible pricing on their purchases.
As of early May, the district had handed out 850 Chromebooks and 100 hotspots. Their creativity in distribution was unlimited—Clark-Scott and her team worked with families to get them the devices however it needed to happen. To protect the families against damage or loss, the district levied a $25 insurance fee on each device, with the offer to waive it in cases of financial hardship.
Importantly, Green also developed both written and video tutorials for families to replace the IT support students normally would have gotten on campus during a transition to a one-to-one technology program. Thanks to her efforts, they’ve received only a few dozen helpdesk tickets. And thanks to their data tracking, they know which students are logging into the system, completing assignments, and connecting with their teachers—which informs their ongoing outreach to families who haven’t gotten online yet.
The COVID-19 response has prompted changes in how work is handled across the board. For Clark-Scott and Green, who usually interact only with staff and teachers, the process of working directly with families has been a learning experience. “We’ve had to get outside of our comfort zone and do what’s best for the kids,” Green said. “Technology is moving forward, and we have to move as a technology department as well, stop thinking about the work on us and start thinking about the benefit to kids.”
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed at the Community Impact Network. “Their staff is awesome,” McCall said. “If you have anyone in your family with school-age children, you can easily grasp what they’re going through.
“This isn’t a situation where you’re looking at just the district as far as the challenges you’re facing,” McCall added. The wider North St. Louis County community was already stressed by economic and social challenges, and the current upheaval has exacerbated them. A relatively small investment in computers has academic significance, but it can also provide a way for students to stay connected to trusted adults like teachers as well as to their friends.
For many years, the Network’s staff and partners have been deeply engaged in Normandy’s efforts to ensure its students are prepared to learn. These collaborations took many forms, including programs designed to improve food service and nutrition education (with Operation Food Search), to help families achieve stability in their living arrangements (with Beyond Housing), and to offer on-campus health services (with Affinia).
“There is a sense of collective efficacy,” said Superintendent Charles Pearson, who has led the district for five years and will be retiring at the end of June. Each initiative “puts the students in a better place to be more effective academically.”
Johnson, the Network’s liaison with the Normandy Schools Collaborative, has seen the relationship flourish over the course of many years. “They are an extremely important piece of what we do as an organization,” she said. “The school district IS the community. They do not survive in isolation. Many aspects of community living—housing options, valuation, attracting businesses, etc.—piggyback off the success of the school district.”
“We have school district staff in our coalitions that attend monthly and quarterly,” she continued. “We fund organizations that are embedded and on site daily in the school district and provide services to scholars. The partnership between the Foundation that funds us and the school district spans a decade.”
Although no one has had time to reflect deeply on the response to the COVID-19 challenges, Clark-Scott is optimistic that the Normandy district will be better off in the long run for the way it was able to meet students’ multifaceted needs for technology and connection during the crisis. “It has pushed us to do something we knew we were going to have to do in the future,” she explained. “We just didn’t know it was going to be so soon.”
To organize and facilitate the delivery of resources and services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Impact Network formed and funded an emergency relief task force comprised of a variety of its partners including Operation Food Search, the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, Affinia Healthcare, Beyond Housing, United 4 Children, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The partner organizations received grant funding for immediate needs within the Normandy Schools Collaborative footprint in North St. Louis County—grants which allowed the partners to collectively address issues including food insecurity, rent, and utility assistance, COVID-19 testing, and more.
In addition, the Network continues to convene its four Coalitions—5byAge5, Back2Basics, Youth1st, and WOW—and to offer behind-the-scenes support to the many ongoing initiatives offered by the 85 organizations with which it has membership agreements. Through fostering authentic, trusting relationships, the Community Impact Network aims to create an environment where nonprofit social service sector providers can experience and demonstrate improved success.