CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — With grape juice and Chex Mix at hand, and their little sister busy coloring nearby, Jenashia and Nevaeh Aponte settled down at a table with Sara Rubio, their “pod leader.”

It was Halloween afternoon and the first floor of the McKenna Center — a renovated Victorian house located across the street from Central Falls High School in Rhode Island — was abuzz with teenagers chatting and admiring one another’s costumes. But the sisters’ attention was squarely on Rubio: There were only four days left before teachers began finalizing first-quarter grades, and the girls needed her help.

Jenashia, a sophomore, pulled out a folder with her biology project, while her sister Nevaeh, a freshman, checked her grades online. Due to an illness in the family, she had missed the deadline to take her Algebra I portfolio exam. Her math teacher had just informed her that she would have to wait and take it next year.

“What’s his name?” asked Rubio, “Text me the dates you were out.”

Rubio, a junior at the University of Rhode Island who attended elementary school in Central Falls, had already intervened once this quarter. She’d noticed that Nevaeh was missing a grade in her online grade book for a major science project that the teen said she had completed. At Rubio’s urging, Nevaeh went to her teacher and they unraveled the mystery: She actually had turned in the assignment but had forgotten to write her name on it.

“She almost failed accidentally,” said Rubio.

The McKenna Center functions as a home for the pods, but pod leaders and students have flexibility to decide where and when to meet to accommodate students’ schedules. Credit: Nancy Walser for The Hechinger Report

Emerging at the height of the pandemic, pods (or “hubs” as they are sometimes called) were organized primarily by middle-class, college-educated parents and community groups to provide safe, supportive spaces for virtual learning. When education went online, pods took off — and then disappeared quickly as school buildings reopened around the country. Now, with federal stimulus dollars flowing and pressure building to accelerate student learning post-pandemic, some public school districts like Central Falls are trying new ways of pairing small groups of students with supportive adults.

While the number of districts currently operating pods or hubs is unknown, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonprofit, created a database to track more than 300 pods in early 2021, finding that about 7 percent of the programs in this sample were run by districts. More recently, the data tracking firm Burbio identified 36 districts that are using pandemic relief funds to start hubs or hub-like learning centers.

“People talk all the time about not going back to the system that didn’t work for all kids. I think this model brings hope.”

Whitney Oakley, Guilford, North Carolina, superintendent

One of the largest programs is in Guilford County, North Carolina. After school, staff and tutors work individually and in small groups of six or seven with teens deemed most at risk for not graduating. The hubs operate in all of the district’s 15 comprehensive high schools and serve 600 to 900 students weekly. Edgecombe County, also in North Carolina, uses pods to prepare 3-year-olds for kindergarten, and to work on projects that interest older students.

One of the more controversial efforts is unfolding in New Hampshire, where education officials set aside $6 million in federal stimulus funds to encourage the formation of both district-run and “community” pods as an alternative to traditional classrooms at the elementary level. The state has contracted with Prenda, an online education provider, to hire “guides” to supervise multi-age pods of five to 10 children. While no district pods have opened yet, 35 community pods, serving about 200 students, are operating in family homes and other settings, according to New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.

The pod program in Central Falls is among the country’s smallest but most ambitious. Launched in March 2021, it was envisioned as a way not only to help kids catch up academically, but also to create new job opportunities for residents of this largely immigrant, Hispanic community, and perhaps even inspire some to pursue teaching careers. Ten pod leaders serve five high schoolers each, meeting individually and as a group every week after school, said Karla Arevalo, the program coordinator.

Pod leader Karla Arevalo, who grew up in Central Falls, was recently promoted to a full-time job coordinating the pod program. Credit: Nancy Walser for The Hechinger Report

In addition to keeping tabs on homework and grades, pod leaders teach students how to manage their time, apply for summer jobs and create goals for life after high school. They plan pizza parties, trips to museums and yoga studios and visits to nearby places the students have never seen, like the seaside city of Newport. The program is expanding this year to include middle schoolers. A federal after-school grant worth $170,000 annually will help fund the program over the next five years. 

Related: Want resilient and well-adjusted kids? Let them play

A tiny city of just over 22,000, Central Falls was no stranger to hard times even before the pandemic. Thirty years ago, facing shortfalls and a limited tax base to fund its schools, city leaders handed financial control of the district over to the state. In 2010, Central Falls made national news again when the entire staff of the city’s only high school was fired as part of “turnaround” effort to raise its perennially low test scores. A year later, the city filed for bankruptcy.

When schools shifted to remote learning in 2020, Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo watched another crisis unfolding. By Thanksgiving, nearly half of the city’s 800 high school students were failing two or more classes. Seventy-four students were failing five. More than half of the freshman class was chronically absent.

When offered the opportunity to start a pod program, Central Falls Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo thought, “We gotta try it.” Credit: Nancy Walser for The Hechinger Report

Meanwhile, from her home in the Boston suburb of Sharon, Massachusetts, Toledo, a mother of four was fielding invitations to join private learning pods being organized by parents. “I mean, people were willing to cover the full salary of a teacher, and I just kept thinking, this would never be an option for the kids who I lead on behalf of,” Toledo recalled.

So, in late 2020, when Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute, a professional development nonprofit, approached her to about applying for a grant to set up pods in the district, she thought, “We gotta at least try.”

From the beginning, Rubin and Toledo agreed that the program would have a community-wide impact in this town, where the median household income was just $34,689 in 2020. Training was designed to provide pod leaders with activities they could use with students. Staff tapped into their networks to recruit the leaders, and reached out to students who might benefit, as well as to their parents. They started by inviting ninth graders deemed most “disengaged.”

Pod leaders, who are paid $20 an hour for 15 hours of work a week, must have a high school diploma or a GED, some connection to the city, and be willing to attend weekly training sessions. Their most important role may be the consistent presence they provide, sometimes checking in with students daily by text, phone, video or email, those involved in the program said.

Lesdin Salazar with photos of Central Falls students. As director of equity implementation for the district, Salazar is one of several staffers helping to expand the pod program over the next five years. Credit: Nancy Walser for The Hechinger Report

Many of their students juggle jobs and babysitting duties for siblings. Some have chronic health conditions affecting their attendance, or struggle with negative emotions, lack of confidence, family conflicts or trauma from losing loved ones. Pod leaders work to draw them out of their shell and get involved in extracurricular activities that excite them and keep them going to school. The pod program is an “extra layer of support” for teachers who don’t have as much time to make deep connections with students, said Lesdin Salazar, the district’s director of equity implementation.

Pod leaders, whose backgrounds are often similar to those of their students, try to convey lessons they had to learn the hard way. Sara Rubio’s parents came to the U.S. from Colombia. Because they didn’t speak English, they couldn’t help her with schoolwork. “I understand the struggle,” she said. “I did all my work alone as a kid. I had to figure it out on my own.”  

Like other pod leaders, she worries the pandemic deepened her students’ feelings of isolation. She shares tips with the teens she works with on how they can communicate more effectively with peers and teachers and overcome the fear of looking “stupid” to ask for help when they need it. She plans to stick with her “beautiful” kids and see them through graduation.

“They’ve been through a lot,” said Rubio. “They need a mentor.”

Related: Communities hit hardest by the pandemic, already struggling, could face a dropout cliff

Will Navarro, one of the first pod leaders hired, grew up next door to the high school. He dropped out his senior year when he realized he was failing English and would not meet graduation requirements. Later, he earned a GED “in a week,” he said. His mother, a single parent, worked double shifts in a factory when he was growing up and instilled in him a work ethic that he tries to encourage in his students.

One of those students is Jason Summers. Navarro began working with Jason in May 2021. A ninth grader at the time, Jason was behind in all his classes. Over a span of three weeks, Navarro helped Jason get his grades up to at least a 50 so he would qualify for summer school and not have to repeat courses the following year.

With Navarro’s encouragement, Jason plays football — his passion — on the JV and Varsity teams. Also with Navarro’s help, he got his driver’s permit this summer. Now in 11th grade, Jason is on track to graduate and hoping to play football in college.  

High school junior Jason Summers meets at least twice a week in person with pod leader, Will Navarro, who keeps close tabs on his academic progress. Credit: Nancy Walser for The Hechinger Report

Still, sitting beside Navarro in the McKenna Center on a recent day, Jason admits to struggling with motivation. “Things have been rocky in school for me because I’ve just gotten lazy,” he said.

“I think he doesn’t understand sometimes how smart he really is, and he doesn’t manage his time properly,” said Navarro.

Without the pods, Jason guesses he would still be a freshman or sophomore.

Jason Summers, who was behind in all his classes as a freshman when the pandemic closed schools, is now a junior on track to graduate. Credit: Nancy Walser for The Hechinger Report

The pods have made a believer out of Denise Debarros, who has worked in the district for more than 20 years. In the past, she tried to connect homeless students to a tutoring program run by a local social services agency to help them boost their grades. But students wouldn’t go. She begged and cajoled, to no avail.

But the pods are different. “I saw them coming here,” she said of the students. “They like coming; I’m sold.” 

For the most part, pod leaders are sticking around, too. Two have been promoted to full-time jobs within the school district, including Central Falls alum Arevalo, who is now coordinating the pod program.

Meanwhile, word about the pods has spread. Staffers report that siblings and friends are signing up, and teachers are inquiring about them.

But the pods are a work in progress. Robert McCarthy, the high school principal, said he supports the program and has seen an uptick in engagement and some academic gains among participants. But he had three veteran teachers leave over the summer, and with a number of vacant positions, he worries that the program is sometimes adding to, rather than reducing, teachers’ workloads.

“If teachers are getting messages from five or six different people who aren’t the parents, it becomes overwhelming,” he said. “By and large, we haven’t figured out a way for pod leaders to connect directly with teachers so that they can really have a more informed sense other than being on Google Classroom and knowing what the assignments are.” 

Related: PROOF POINTS: Pace of learning back to normal during the 2021-22 pandemic school year but student achievement lags far behind, data shows

Whether pods are here to stay is an open question. David Dockterman, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied past efforts to tailor learning to students’ individual needs, said the pods “seem like a good idea” as long they don’t marginalize students, and as long as they help accelerate learning.  

Ultimately the future of pods may depend on whether they can be linked to improved test scores, he said, adding, “That’s where the pressure is.”

Proponents of pods are encouraged by student survey results and other data to date. Kathryn Rose, a registered nurse who runs two pods out of her home in Goffstown, New Hampshire, said pods are a much-needed alternative for students who aren’t succeeding in — or who may even refuse to attend — traditional classrooms, including students who have been bullied, suffer extreme anxiety or have disabilities, such as autism.

Students in the pod program can often be found coming and going from the McKenna Center. Credit: Nancy Walser for The Hechinger Report

These students are “thriving” in a small, homeschool setting where they can take breaks when they want, and pursue other interests like foreign languages and coding during the day after they finish their individual goals for advancing through the required curricula, she said. Last year, all her students either met or exceeded the typical annual growth on the iReady tests in math and English language arts, she said.

In Guilford, data shows that students who attend the high school hubs after school have higher graduation rates than those who do not, said Superintendent Whitney Oakley. At a cost of $240 per student per year, the hubs are “absolutely worth every single penny,” she said.

Oakley said the flexible opportunities for students, including access to counseling and to their own teachers within the comfortable setting of their own school has contributed to the hubs’ success. The district also provides dinner and transportation home. To help build math skills, an area in which “a lot” of students fell behind, the district recruited 20 Black engineering students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, said Oakley. For Black students, who make up one-third of the district’s student population, having tutors “who look like them offers all kinds of rewards,” she said. 

“I understand the struggle. I did all my work alone as a kid. I had to figure it out on my own.” 

Sara Rubio, pod leader, Central Falls, Rhode Island

 “People talk all the time about not going back to the system that didn’t work for all kids,” she said. “I think this model brings hope.”

Toledo, the Central Falls superintendent, said she’ll be looking at attendance and grades along with the results from first-quarter benchmark testing this fall to gauge progress from the pods. But so far, she said she’s “so pleased.”

“We’re hearing from families [who] see a difference in their kids’ interest in being in school,” she said. “That’s huge to get those thank yous from families saying, ‘Thanks for thinking outside of the box, because traditional school was not alone gonna be the path for my child.’”

This story about learning pods was supported by a reporting fellowship from the Education Writers Association and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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