In the days before the coronavirus school shutdown, Phalon Carpenter spent her days shuttling between a few different elementary schools on Chicago’s West Side helping out six little girls. In the afternoons, she would take the girls to the library to pick out a book, to the park to climb on the monkey bars and blow bubbles or just to talk.
But when schools closed last month, she didn’t stop connecting with her students. As a professional mentor with an organization called Friends of the Children, she now talks to the girls on the phone or Facetime almost every day, going over sight words or having them write what they’re feeling and reading it to her.
It’s hard sometimes to keep the girls focused. After all, they are only in the first and second grades.
“Suddenly they will say, ‘This is my brother, this is my cat, these are my mom’s shoes,’” Carpenter said, laughing. But even that, she said is instructive. “It is fun, because they are showing you their world and they will want to see your world.”
With Chicago Public Schools scrambling to minimize learning loss during the closure, groups that work alongside schools have kicked into high gear to help. They are filling a key role for many of the children most at risk for falling behind. Some are shifting from counseling students to connecting families with resources, like food, rental support or mental health services.
“All of a sudden, there was this obvious physical barrier, and we had to figure out how we are going to be there for the youth, who we have developed these really deep connections with,” said Michelle Adler-Morrison, CEO of Youth Guidance, which runs several school-based programs in Chicago. “We know the youth are depending on the staff.”
Normally, Youth Guidance connects with its students at schools, including running weekly group therapy and skill-building programs called Becoming A Man and Working On Womanhood. But now, Adler-Morrison asked Youth Guidance staff to try to contact every one of their students and act like full-on social workers, focusing first on limiting suffering in families.
“We direct them toward the food pantries. We direct them toward the churches, any entity that is partnering with us so we get those resources out to the families,” said Carlos Smith, a Becoming A Man supervisor. “We are constantly getting new resources every day, so it is never ending.”
Another group, Communities In Schools of Chicago, is launching a “tele-support” helpline for families in its 175 schools.
Youth Guidance staffers say they are finding that young people and their families feel bombarded. In a city where black people are dying at disproportionately high rates from COVID-19, knowing people who are sick is common. Many of their families also live in neighborhoods marked by violence, making it hard to go outside. On top of that, many are out of work and struggling to put food on the table.
Youth Guidance mentors are talking to the young men about how to stick with the values the program promotes, such as self-determination and integrity. As the situation becomes more desperate, these can be hard to remember, he said.
Other groups, like the one Carpenter works for, mentor younger children — and want them to know their mentors won’t disappear, even during a pandemic. Mentors commit to staying with their students for 12 years.
“No matter what, we are going to be here,” Carpenter said. “You have to keep that connection, so they know we are not abandoning them. They feel safe. We still laugh together.”
She said her mentees received paper learning packets from their schools before they closed on March 17, but many are below grade level and can’t do the work without a lot of support. She has been dropping off individualized packets they can do on their own.
So far, only three of her six families have been offered a computer from their schools, she said. Friends of the Children is trying to get the other children computers through their networks. Once they get computers, Carpenter plans to sit on the phone with their parents as they learn how to log on and get into e-learning.
From “disaster” fears to reassurance
Stephanie Collins’ 7-year-old daughter, Caprice, is one of Carpenter’s mentees. When schools initially shut down, Collins thought it was going to be “a disaster.” But she said Carpenter’s support gives her confidence her daughter won’t fall behind.
Collins also depends on Carpenter to know what’s going on. In fact, she didn’t know remote learning was starting in Chicago Public Schools on Monday until Carpenter informed her.
Jaynell Richardson is also leaning on a school-based organization for support for her daughter. She works long hours as a nutrition technician at the University of Chicago Hospital. “I am very, very busy. I have been at work since 6 a.m. this morning,” she said at about 4 p.m. on Friday.
Richardson said she’s thankful her daughter Nasje’s mentor is available. She said Nasje, an eighth grader, is working hard to stay focused. She has not heard anything from her teacher since her school, King Elementary, closed.
Nasje is alarmed that eighth grade graduation might not happen. “She is shocked and disappointed,” Richardson said.
Richardson is also worried about Nasje keeping up academically. “I do not have a computer or internet, so I am wondering, how is this e-learning going to work for me and my daughter?” she said.
Her daughter’s mentor, Aisha Robinson, with Communities In Schools, said she is working this week to make sure Nasje has what she needs to get connected and stay on track. She talks to her regularly about the prospect of missing graduation, and how she should still be proud of all the hard work she did before the COVID-19 school shutdown.