By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
With classes remaining online in the Pittsburgh Public Schools until at least April 6, access to virtual daily lessons is essential.
Though the school district has issued devices and internet connections to students throughout the city, at least one group of students has struggled with connectivity and language barriers: Somali-Bantu refugee students living with their families in Northview Heights, a public housing plan operated by the City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority.
To address those struggles, a learning hub for the refugee students was opened Feb. 3 by the United Methodist Church Union in a former church building located on the complex. Financial support is coming from the Buhl Foundation, A+Schools advocacy group and Allegheny County Department of Human Services in partnership with other local foundations.
Just a week after opening, the hub has hit its capacity of 25 students in grades K-8, said the Rev. Larry Homitsky, president of the United Methodist Church Union.
The students attend King PreK-8 and Arsenal PreK-5 and Arsenal 6-8.
The United Methodist Church Union has a long history of providing assistance to families at Northview Heights, Homitsky said. In November it was busy providing new coats, scarves and shoes to members of the Somali and Bhutanese families and distributing more than 60 desks and chairs as workspaces for their school students.
But with continuing internet connectivity issues, language barriers and the fact that a number of students were alone during the school day while their parents worked, there was still an unmet need.
“The next obvious thing became a learning hub,” Homitsky said.
Pittsburgh Current focused on access problems faced by English as Second Language students in an October article. At the time, leaders of the Somali-Bantu community in Northview Heights spoke of how the internet service provided by the district — Comcast Essentials — was not strong enough to provide service for the large families who had multiple students trying to log in to classes at the same time in the same household.
In addition, the leaders said, because many of the students were home unsupervised during the school day because their parents had to work, a learning hub in the community would be helpful.
Learning hubs had been established through the city and county at the start of school in other geographic locations for students whose parents could not be home during school hours.
So the church union started to work to figure out what was needed for a Northview Heights hub. COVID supplies such as masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, air exchangers and daily aerosol cleansing were at the top of the list. Desks spaced at a distance of at least six feet, staff to supervise students and strong internet service were also needed.
A visit to the Northview Heights hub Wednesday, a week after opening, found middle school students working quietly on the top floor of the building on their district-issued devices while the younger students worked a bit more boisterously on the lower level.
“The first day they were here they came and sat at their computers and were quiet,” said Peggy Ward, director of the hub. “Then they seemed to loosen up.”
Ward said she helps students log into their classroom work and that PPS staff has been helpful when technical glitches arise.
“The school district has been very supportive and committed to helping us set up. If something is wrong, they troubleshoot it,” Ward said.
Schedules for each of the schools are posted on the walls and each student sticks to the schedule assigned for their school and grade levels.
Ward worked with the younger students while an aide supervised the middle school students who appeared to work independently.
Homitsky said he plans to hire enough staff so that there are 4-5 adult supervisors on the premise at all times.
“There is a need that we have found that we have a number of children who really need one-on-one assistance,” Homitsky said.
The hub operates daily from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to accommodate the school day. It remains open from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. for tutoring.
Pittsburgh Public Schools is providing breakfast and lunch for the students and the church union has food on-site for students who will need dinner, Homitsky said.
Principals at King and Arsenal identified the students who needed to be in the hub based on their struggles with classes and logging in. Attending on the hub’s first day to greet students were King Principal Nathan Berkowitz and Arsenal 6-8 principal Patti Camper.
“I give them a lot of credit for caring about their students and knowing that they could not be online on a regular basis,” Homitsky said.
Homitsky and Ward said many of the students are behind in their coursework and skills. Homitsky said even if students return to in-person classes in April, the hub will still provide after school tutoring. In addition, there are plans for summer and fall tutoring at the site.
The anticipated cost of operating the hub for the remainder of the school year, if needed, and offering summer tutoring is between $45,000-$50,000
“We are fully funded for the foreseeable future,” Homitsky said.