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New community initiative launches learning pods to address achievement gap

Twin Cities companies have donated more than $1 million in initial funding for the learning pods.

MINNEAPOLIS — As distance learning becomes the norm amid COVID-19, more learning pods are popping up.

"It's an incredibly challenging time for parents. If they're working one or two or more jobs and kids are fully distanced," said Glen Gunderson, CEO and president of YMCA of the North. "The other challenge is actual connection itself. So do all families have access to the internet so that their kids can be effective from a distance-based learning perspective?"  

While some families have formed their own learning pods — a small group of students who distance learn together — not everyone has the resources to make that possible. 

The issue was acknowledged by North Star Network, an initiative of the African American Community Response Team (AACRT) and Summit Academy. 

Now, community organizations and corporations have come together to set up learning pods at local churches and community centers, including at the YMCA of the North. They're focused on supporting students K-8, especially Black students and other students of color.  

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"The two learning labs that we're talking about today, one at the North Community YMCA and one at the Blaisdell YMCA, each are supporting 50 young people. Then we have six other pilot sites through church partners, through other community center partners, that are allowing the model to be expanded," Gunderson explained. 

Tuesday morning, at Harold Mezile North Community YMCA Youth & Teen Center, Bravery Vaughan was in a learning pod listening to her kindergarten teacher through an iPad. 

About the learning pod, the five-year-old said, "I like all the people who help me."

"It's just a space for them to come to to do their virtual learning and make sure they stay on task so that they don't create any gaps in their learning," said Jason Burns, operations coordinator for North Star Network.

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The learning pods are also meant to help bridge the achievement gap. Minnesota has some of the largest gaps by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status in the nation. 

Andersen Corporate Foundation, Securian Financial, U.S. Bank and Xcel Energy are providing more than $1 million in initial funding for the pods – each pod costs about $300,000 to run. North Star Network hopes to raise $2 million to expand the program. 

"Education is a critical priority; racial equity is a very big priority for Xcel Energy. This is an opportunity to showcase both of those and provide the needed support that kids are needing these days," said John Marshall, Xcel Energy director of community relations.

RELATED: Officials seek to close the achievement gap in Minnesota

The pods include Chromebooks, internet access, tutors, quiet areas, free meals, outdoor activities, enrichment experiences and mental health support. They've also taken safety precautions like desk barriers, social distancing and mask wearing. 

"It's not only important from a learning perspective but there's a social, emotional learning perspective," Gunderson said. 

While they're rolling out eight learning pods, Gunderson said the hope is to expand. 

"We're interested in a statewide effort that would have more than 70 sites. So this pilot is just scratching the surface," Gunderson said. 

The learning pods are free for families. 

You can register for some of the locations through North Star Network's Eventbrite page, here

You can also reach out to AACRT, here.