This screenshot is from an online summer enrichment class sponsored by the Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity.
This screenshot is from an online summer enrichment class sponsored by the Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity.

When the Lancaster Partnership for Learning Equity launched this summer, it had multiple goals.

In the short term, its organizers wanted to counteract the disruptive effect of the coronavirus pandemic on education. But they also wanted to tackle the entrenched economic and social economic disparities that lead to disadvantaged children falling behind — in other words, to actualize the "Equity" in the partnership's name.

The first project, the Summer Learning program, was a success. Now, building on that effort, the partnership is launching a follow-up: a free remote after-school enrichment program. As before, it will use materials developed by BellXcel, a nationally recognized leader in educational enrichment.

"We're really excited about it," said Olivia Walters, outreach coordinator with The Steinman Foundation. "BellXcel has put together some phenomenal content."

Lancaster County children in kindergarten through eighth grade are eligible. There are 360 openings; enrollment opened last week and is ongoing. (To apply, click here.)

The program will get under way Tuesday, Jan. 19, and continue through May 25. Plans calls for one hour of online instruction four days a week — 4 to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Educators and students will be able to schedule additional time for one-on-one or small-group tutoring and enrichment, and families will have access to a digital library of materials and activities.

About the partnership

The local founders of the Partnership for Learning Equity are the Steinman Foundation, the Lancaster STEM Alliance and the United Way of Lancaster County. (The United Way sponsors One United Lancaster.) Financial support came from PNC, the Campbell Foundation and Lancaster Rotary.

The partnership built on an initiative, begun in March by the STEM Alliance, the Steinman Foundation and Comcast, to enroll eligible families for six months of free Internet service.

Not long after, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania schools to close for the rest of the academic year. The STEM Alliance raised alarms about the potential long-term consequences to children, particularly those from low-income households.

(Source: BellXcel)

They already are at greater risk from the "summer slide" — the tendency to lose academic proficiency over the summer break. There was additional concern that the shift to remote learning would magnify the impact of the digital divide, the gulf between students with access to and familiarity with digital technology, and those without.

Walters had recently learned about BellXcel. The nonprofit specializes in raising struggling students' achievement; when the pandemic struck, BellXcel had pivoted swiftly to develop a corpus of innovative online lessons.

To deliver them, the United Way recruited 30 teachers within two weeks. The partnership provided free laptops to eligible households; Internet service was provided through the arrangement with Comcast.

Putting it all together in record time, then seeing it come to life, "felt like the kind of miraculous experiment we all dream of being a part of," said Kevin Ressler, President and CEO of the United Way of Lancaster County.

Summer results

The summer program ran Monday through Thursday for five weeks from mid-July through mid-August. There were 630 children enrolled, of whom 560 were able to attend full-time, Walters said.

The skills the children learned, and the confidence it gave them, were invaluable, Ressler said. When the School District of Lancaster began the school year with remote instruction, children who had gone through the summer program knew Zoom inside and out. Ressler saw first-graders eagerly explaining Zoom to their classmates and helping them over its hurdles.

Imagine, he said, how that feels to disadvantaged children who spent their whole lives feeling they were the ones unprepared, the ones behind.

Feedback from the teachers and families was overwhelmingly positive. Student assessments, meanwhile, indicated that participants maintained their math skills and gained 1.5 months of proficiency in reading.

By the numbers

The children liked it, too.

"We got to read a lot of stories," said Abigail, who is now in fourth grade. "It helped me learn fourth grade (material) before I got into it."

Meg Reed is founder and executive director of Horizons, an academic enrichment program for at-risk students in grades K-8, hosted by Lancaster Country Day School.

About 90 children are enrolled in Horizons, and roughly half participated in the partnership's summer program. They got a lot out of it, Reed said, so she's looking forward to informing families of the upcoming after-school offering and helping them sign up.

Horizons is one of several organizations helping with recruiting and logistics; others are REAL Life Community Services, the Together Initiative Network and the Northern Lancaster Hub.

There are already students enrolled from all 16 school districts, Ressler said, along with private school students and homeschooled children.

"This is truly a countywide learning initiative," Ressler said. "That means an equal playing field no matter which school district you go to. ... That's equity."

Reed said she hopes the partnership continues after the pandemic is over.

"It makes all of us better when we work on something like this together," she said.

Tim Stuhldreher