Santa Barbara Learning Center Movement helps students tackle distance learning
Students in kindergarten to eighth grade are working on their classwork in churches throughout Santa Barbara.
It’s called the Santa Barbara Learning Center Movement, which is led by Bob Niehaus and the Coalition for Neighborhood Schools.
Calvary Chapel was the first church to open its facility and now has 24 students enrolled, 30 volunteers and one staff member overseeing the program.
The students sit six-feet apart at long folding tables. They have headphones on to hear their class and bring their tablets or computers to participate. They wear masks and get temperatures taken before they walk inside.
There are at least four volunteers in the room each day and can help the students with questions and keep them on task. Most days, at least one volunteer is bilingual. While all the students speak English well, the bilingual volunteer helps communicate with parents.
The hardest part is keeping the students engaged in the youth group room — which has a skate ramp and climbing wall. But the kids have been amazing, according to Calvary Chapel’s learning center supervisor Hannah Stutzman.
“A lot of them just have a hard time learning over Zoom, especially the little ones,” she said. “We’ve heard from many of the teachers that they’ve improved a lot in their grades and saved by coming here.”
Some of the students hadn’t logged in since March, so teachers were appreciative of the program for getting students back online.
The Learning Center Movement began when a member of Calvary Chapel saw students clustering around internet hotspots at Franklin Elementary School. She called the principal and learned that students were struggling to engage in learning online.
The church wanted to help and opened the center in October. Around the same time, other churches saw the students’ struggles as well.
Bob Niehaus wanted to expand the program to other churches so students in other areas of town could have a place to study. He gathered a staff of five to help interested churches.
“Most of the impetus is in getting the children a safe, supportive, efficient way to give students wifi access to continue their education through their school,” he said.
One day, he called up Roseanne Crawford, president of the Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, after reading her columns in local newspapers. He thought CNS would align well with his mission.
Ms. Crawford, along with former CNS president Alice Post, were enthusiastic about partnering. They focus on expanding the number of schools in the district so elementary students can walk to school.
“This is an opportunity because now more facilities are opening up to serve school kids. And they’re in the same neighborhoods where the kids live,” Ms. Post said. “It was brought about by a tragedy, but the need was already there before for more facilities.”
They saw churches as an obvious choice to fill the need for a learning space. Most places of worship are empty during the week and have large halls perfect for physical distancing.
“Churches, they just have to do the right thing and offer equity by providing a safe space for these kids that don’t have internet connection, or possibly alone all day because parents work,” Ms. Crawford said.
“They stepped up because they saw there was a need. There’s no money in this organization. They are all different churches, and they’re just trying to do the right thing. And that’s what makes this so pure, so powerful,” she said.
So far, 10 churches have volunteered. Churches without proper facilities have sent volunteers to the sites to help out.
“It really is motivated by Christian intent because the people want to help the students, but they’re not there to indoctrinate the kids but just provide that setting,” Mr. Niehaus said.
He’d like to see the movement extend beyond the pandemic and provide volunteers to the schools. As part of Calvary Chapel’s partnership with Franklin Elementary, he read books to a kindergarten class last year and saw a great impact.
“We’re taking a long-term view. Because what we saw at Franklin is that test scores skyrocketed after churches started volunteering and providing tutoring,” he said. “We want to make a difference in American education. Hopefully, we can start something that can be transplanted elsewhere.”
For now, the Learning Center Movement provides a supervised place to log into Zoom classes and complete homework. Even when schools are allowed to reopen, the hybrid plan only brings students on campus two days per week.