Supporting Children’s Learning When and How They Need it

Posted by
This article is part of the “Forged in Fire: New Models” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Patti Reiss, Mississippi Children’s Museum

Mississippi Children’s Museum’s (MCM) Launch into Learning (LIL) program provides tutoring, afterschool, and day camp services. LIL developed organically out of our successful summer camp, in response to our community’s critical fall need for childcare and educational resources.

With COVID-19 recommendations in place, MCM started its traditional summer camp program at the beginning of June 2020. It was the first time that children had been on the grounds of the museum since Sunday, March 1, when we closed to the public. MCM hosted a full eight weeks of camp while operating regular museum hours with a capacity limited to 250 visitors at a time. By August, schools began announcing their plans for fall—some opting to start in-person, others postponing start dates, and still others adopting hybrid or virtual models.

Photo credit: Haleigh Brown

During the last week of camp, a group of campers’ parents approached the museum about hosting afterschool programming in the fall. They had recently been notified that their previous aftercare option was no longer available, highlighting the sudden urgency for childcare that many parents faced. MCM staff knew if they could successfully run day camps during a pandemic, they could certainly host many of the same children for just a few hours every afternoon.

Discussions began about implementing an afterschool program. Less than a week later, the Jackson Public School District (JPS), Mississippi’s largest public school system and MCM’s home district, announced that their classes would be virtual for the first four weeks of the semester—a timeline that quickly evolved into the entire fall. Many JPS children already faced increased academic challenges after losing nearly a semester in the classroom in early 2020. Underserved students who lacked access to technological resources, faced even more critical challenges.

One of MCM’s longstanding community partners, Stewpot Community Services, a local nonprofit organization that helps families in need, was already providing childcare services to a group of JPS families. However, Stewpot’s facility was not equipped to handle COVID-19 distancing measures, or provide the technological support to fifty virtually-learning elementary students. The museum had the space, the tools, and a staff trained to work with children on educational, social, and emotional learning. In previous years, the museum had talked with schools about starting afterschool care but had never worked directly with the school districts until COVID demanded new solutions for ongoing challenges. Now, together, we realized we could give children a remarkable experience.

Launch into Learning began in August with a dozen students, allowing MCM to continue regular but still limited daily museum visitation. By the first week of October, the program had grown to serve more than eighty students daily. MCM pivoted operations, delivering Launch into Learning during the week and opening the museum to members and visitors on the weekends.

Photo credit: Haleigh Brown

LIL students are grouped by grade level in learning pods of eight children each. Their teachers provide curriculum content for them in the mornings. The museum then delivers additional STEM, art, and physical education activities in the afternoons. Sixty percent of the students have a diagnosed learning disability; 75 percent come from underserved families. For many of them, museum school has changed their outlook on learning. It is amazing to see students from fifteen different schools in the same district build connections among a broader network of children through shared topics that they would not have been exposed to previously.

The fall 2020 program was supported by the Mississippi Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER funds), supplemented by donations and a few tuition-paying families. The majority of participating students paid no fees.

MCM built relationships with individual teachers and parents, creating a circle of care for these students from school to museum to home. The parents entrusted MCM with their children, and the teachers put their faith and grace into our interactions. The program continued through Friday, January 15, 2021, having served more than 100 students from twelve JPS schools. With JPS students scheduled to return to in-person learning after ten months away from their schools, LIL is transitioning into an afternoon-only program.

Will Launch into Learning continue indefinitely? Public schools reopened for in-person learning on January 18, and everyone was thrilled to be back. Like many other COVID-based responses, the museum is taking it one nine-week program at a time right now. But we know that we are capable of using our expertise to provide all kinds of need-based learning programs as they arise—an opinion shared by many parents and now school district leaders, too.

Patti Reiss is director of museum experiences at Mississippi Children’s Museum in Jackson, Mississippi.