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Foss: Homeless children learn in Noah’s Ark; Schenectady City Mission creates special kids learning room


Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss

Remote learning wasn’t working for the children who reside at the City Mission of Schenectady.

“There were a lot of distractions,” recalled Quanisha Williams, a City Mission resident whose five-year-old twins are in kindergarten. “I probably said ‘look at your teacher’ a million times.”

Mike Sacoccio, executive director of the City Mission, could see that there was a problem.

Overseeing the twins’ virtual learning made it difficult for Williams to attend to her own responsibilities, which include taking online classes and developing a plan for the future. And the children, lacking focus, were falling behind.

“They didn’t take me seriously as a teacher,” Williams told me.

The Mission came up with a solution: They created a classroom for school-age children called Noah’s Ark, and assigned a staff member to supervise their studies.

Now the twins spend the day in Noah’s Ark, a beautiful, welcoming space with animals painted on the wall, portholes that give the room a boat-like feel, supplies such as books and paints and a computer where they can interact with their teachers and classmates in the Schenectady school district.

The Mission has dedicated a lot of resources to making sure the small group of children in its care get the educational experience they deserve, and Sacoccio believes it’s worth it.

“We cannot have kids miss a year of education,” he said. “Maybe this can be a year where learning becomes joyful.”

Had I not visited Noah’s Ark and seen how stimulating and nurturing it was for myself, I might have doubted such a thing was possible.

Most reporting has focused on how hard virtual learning is for homeless children, and rightly so. Instability, unreliable Internet service, noise, lack of space – these are all things that make it difficult for children to learn remotely.

Noah’s Ark eliminates these challenges, and the twins, named Kayden and Kahdayah, appear to be thriving.

They might even be getting a better educational experience than many of their peers, in part because they receive direction and support from Julia Goldstock, an executive assistant at the City Mission. Most lower-income children don’t have access to tutors to help them with virtual learning, or classrooms, created just for them, in which to learn.

Goldstock said it’s taken time to get the children caught up with their learning, and that it’s difficult for kindergartners to “sit at a computer all day. … You need someone there. They don’t know how to navigate a computer.” But she added that they’ve made tremendous progress with counting and spelling, and gained an understanding of what a full school day entails.

“We don’t just sit in front of the computer,” said Goldstock, who chatted with me while standing in front of an easel that displayed two of the twins’ paintings. “I wouldn’t do that to them.”

Noah’s Ark is impressive.

It’s also another example of how parents and non-profit organizations are stepping up to fill the gaps created by the withdrawal of full-day, in-person learning in Schenectady’s public schools.

Until recently, Goldstock was supervising four children, but two of them left with their mother when she found permanent housing.

Noah’s Ark is located in the City Mission’s Family Life Center, which houses homeless women and children up to the age of 10.

Right now, there are about nine children at the center, but the twins are the only ones old enough for school.

Williams, 35, and her four children have lived there since last February, when she lost her housing. She is enrolled in a longterm program that aims to put people on a path to independence and sustainability, and hopes to graduate this spring.

The twins do have access to half-day in-person kindergarten, but Williams opted for all-virtual learning, citing “uncertainty.”

“I felt like this was a more controlled environment,” she said.

It’s also an enriching environment.

“(The twins) are learning how to read, they can recognize sight words,” she said, adding that there are “pros and cons” to virtual learning. “I can celebrate with them. I can see when they get a concept. That’s really nice.”

“Being here during the pandemic was probably the best thing for our family,” Williams continued. “I feel like the flood came, and someone told my family to get on the boat.”

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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