Sophomore Dreshon Robinson stands outside his high school cafeteria, where the learning hub takes place. He wants to go to college and be an audio engineer.
(Cornell Watson for NPR)
It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and the fall colors in the trees are glowing as the sun drops low over the sprawling, historic campus of Grimsley High School in Greensboro, N.C. Dozens of students are waiting outside the cafeteria.
One of them is sophomore Dreshon Robinson. He wants to be a music engineer someday. He loves Adele and Bruno Mars. But right now, he's working evenings in a restaurant. And Monday through Thursday after school, he comes to Grimsley High school's "learning hub."
Here, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., there are certified teachers to help with any subject Dre needs. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, there's free dinner too – maybe Chick-fil-A or pizza – and a bus to take you home.
"If I do need tutoring or if I need help," Dre says, "it's teachers in there, so I can get help with my schoolwork. So I don't ever get behind. Because I'm not one for catching up."
A place for students – and the district – to catch up
Like districts all over the country, Guilford County, a large system of more than 70,000 students in the north-central part of the state, is playing catchup.
They have seen falling test scores after months of remote and hybrid learning and all of the stresses and traumas of the pandemic. Many high school students started working last year when their parents lost jobs. Some are working two jobs.
Dreshon typically works from 6:30 to 10 p.m., five days a week. When he's home, he crashes, exhausted, or dedicates time to friends or family. "I'm not ever doing school work at home."
Guilford County first opened a version of these learning hubs last school year during remote learning. They were there to give students access to computers and broadband internet, which 1 in 5 families lacked at the start of the pandemic.
The Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation (Dell Technologies is a financial supporter of NPR) funded the hubs this fall to help students stay engaged in school. The grants cover payment for teachers, transportation, meals and incentives for students who stick with their commitment to attend, like gift cards to buy gas.
The hubs opened across the district in October. Some schools have Saturday sessions as well as after school. So far about 2,450 students have shown up at least once, a number the district is hoping will grow.
At Grimsley High School, word has spread, and the hub has had to move from the media center to the larger cafeteria.
Teachers identify students who are behind and recommend them for the hub. "We have got a lot of kids who typically would have tapped out at this particular point in the year," says Grimsley's assistant principal, Christopher Burnette, who oversees the hub.
When students get their report cards and see low grades in the first quarter, Burnette explained, "they realize that this is a no-win situation. And then they start to fade back." Attendance drops. They're turning less work in. Grades plummet.
That could have been Dreshon Robinson. He lost 15 days this fall to COVID quarantines.
"Biology is hard to teach from a computer," says Dreshon's favorite teacher, Sierra Hannipole. "When he got behind, there was a struggle to pick him back up. And that's unfair to him because he does try. "
"I don't want to ever fall behind again because it is really hard," Dreshon agrees.
"Like, you come in, and everybody's like, 'Oh, Dre's back!' Then you be like, 'Oh, what are we doing?' 'We doing this.' I'm like, 'Oh. I don't know what that is.'"
Since Dreshon started attending the hub, Hannipole says, he's not only caught up, but he's more on top of his deadlines, more proactive. "What I've noticed different from him is a stronger level of accountability."
A place for teachers to build stronger relationships
The cafeteria is a newer building with high ceilings and walls of windows. Inside, the mood is calm and friendly. Students are sitting with their friends, but they're staying on task. Some high achievers on the school's International Baccalaureate track have been showing up voluntarily to not only do their own homework, but help their friends.
All over the country, schools are reporting record levels of staff burnout. The hub model relies on teachers volunteering to extend their work day, not to mention counselors, the custodians and the bus drivers.
On the evening we visit, Burnette's children join him for the school-provided dinner. His wife is an assistant principal at another school, so they trade evening duties.
"We have to make sure that we practice what we preach," he says. When he asks teachers to volunteer, he reminds them it will be helpful for the students. "I just ask, if you can give your kids an hour, it will be more beneficial to them."
Tajae Pryce, who teaches special education at Grimsley, is consistently at the hub.
"Students have always benefited from one-on-one and small groups," he says. "Being able to have that time built in to do that has been really great."
For Pryce, the big payoff is better relationships with his students. "I've met kids who have never spoken in class before, who hadn't had that confidence before or made a connection ... because of lack of time," he explains. "So I really feel like Grimsley High School is like a model of what we could be doing. It's been pretty successful."
Counselors and social workers also come to the hub, for students who need someone to talk to.
"Our kids have been through trauma that we can't imagine. Not even counting the disease, but just the economic effects," Pryce says. "I have kids whose parents have lost jobs, kids who are working, helping with rent and bills. These kids are impacted by crime and other things in our community. So this is a good place for them to be."
A future of more flexible options
In the spring of 2021, with the help of Saturday learning hubs, increased flexibility from the state, and a summer quarter, Guilford County posted the highest high school graduation rate in its history: 91.4 percent. That's in a district where nearly two-thirds of students are living in poverty.
This school year, when they came back in person, Sharon Contreras, the superintendent, says they did not want to leave any student behind.
"We did home visits. Everyone from myself to principals to school resource officers knocked on doors. We visited shelters," she said. "We were very concerned that we could not place our eyes on students, we did not know if they were OK. We already knew that academically they were suffering. But there are many more concerns that go beyond academic concerns. ... So we just knocked on doors saying, 'Please come back, it's safe to come back to school.'"
Contreras has a grand vision for the future of these hubs. She would like to offer more flexible scheduling for students, especially those who must work to support their families. They could attend hubs before, and after, regular school hours to get their main course credits for graduation.
And she'd even like to pay students directly for attending the hub. "I think it's part of the silver lining of the pandemic that we thought about some of the old practices that just weren't beneficial for students. "
For his part, Dreshon Robinson says the learning hub is giving him new skills to handle his schoolwork.
"I was like, studying is whack," he says. "But then you get to high school, you're like, 'Dang. maybe I do need to study,' but I'm like, 'I don't know how to study.' So you go to the learning hub, they help you."
He's happy to be back at school in person. He says he wants to go to college and pursue his dreams.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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