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How a Summer Learning and Sports Program Adapted to the Pandemic

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Over 200 youngsters in East Harlem and the South Bronx logged on for their first day of DREAM's REAL Kids summer program in July 2020. Leadership for the six-week, baseball and softball-oriented program made the decision back in March to connect with its Pre-K and elementary students virtually.

"As a sports-based program, we were really grappling with, 'How do you keep the spirit of sport through a virtual experience?' Especially if you can't have students out on the fields every day in the same way," Kalila Hoggard, DREAM's Managing Director of Programs said.

Part of the solution included relying on the program's guiding principle: Connecting academic enrichment, social-emotional learning, and physical activity to a team.

In the morning part of the program, that meant grouping students in virtual reading and activity Zoom rooms led by high school student coaches from DREAM's charter school and others from the community. In the afternoons, students would join their virtual breakout teams for indoor fitness games and exercises, also led by their coaches.

The students name their teams, create cheers, and gather for MVP celebrations during their Friday virtual "Run Rallies."

"It's really critical that they have that sense of joint identity," Hoggard said. "So all of their activities are done through teams in the same way that on a sports team you are this cohesive unit that's working together."

Building a 'Foundation of Trust'

The team aspect is what Eve Colavito, DREAM's Chief Education Officer, believes keeps the students engaged.

"What we know is that often what brings a student back is the relationship they have with their coach or with their teacher," Colavito said. "When you launch something new, I think you really need to invest in building that relationship ... because we do believe that that foundation of trust will drive the success and effectiveness of the program."

In the middle of a critical summer where the potential for learning loss-compounded by what researchers call a coronavirus or COVID slide-is very high, especially for low-income Black and brown students, those relationships are what Colavito hopes the REAL Kids program will reinforce.

"When we think about: What do we fall back on? What can we hold true in a time of trauma? It is connection and relationship," she said. "It is part of the reason we were unwilling to let go of our summer programs this year... We needed to maintain those connections and relationships to our kids to make sure that we were responding in a way that recognized the humanity of our children to this collective trauma."

Coverage of after-school learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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