Learning in (and with) the Pandemic: The Neighborhood Schools Program and COVID-19

Though the COVID-19 pandemic posed multiple challenges to education, the Neighborhood Schools Program has successfully managed to continue providing equitable opportunities to students of South Side partner schools.

A laptop computer with a Zoom tab open sits in front of a notebook and pencils.
Illustration by Exploring Race illustrator Jinna Lee

“Students learning from and servicing the communities.”

When Brandi Snodgrass—the director of the Neighborhood Schools Program (NSP)—was asked about the mission of NSP, community interaction was at the heart of it. Currently staffed with over 250 student workers and servicing 500 children in the community, the NSP is a significant community outreach organization on campus, giving students a first-hand understanding of the benefits and challenges of working in underserved communities.

NSP contains three programs where students can work: NSP school placements, Maroon Tutor Match, and Jumpstart. With NSP school placements, students work as tutors, teaching assistants, or administrative assistants with one of NSP’s 50 partner schools. Maroon Tutor Match is an affordable tutoring service: while the prices of other tutoring programs can range from $50-$125/hour, parents only have to pay students $14/hour. The University’s Women’s Board has also provided a grant to NSP to assist parents who may not be able to afford Maroon Tutor Match, while making sure student tutors are still paid, making Maroon Tutor Match more accessible to the community. Scholarships that cover three hours of tutoring per week for one academic year are also available. Jumpstart is the pre-school focused portion of NSP, specifically focused on the Woodlawn community. It was servicing 120 preschool students last year and currently has 36 student-workers, grouped up in teams of 6.

NSP faced a variety of challenges during the pandemic, especially with regard to the transition into e-learning. “The largest challenge [NSP faced] was the unknown,” Snodgrass commented. When NSP connected with their partners, they had to figure out which partners would transition to e-learning; how to supplement e-learning plans; how to tailor NSP, Maroon Tutor Match, and Jumpstart in order for students on the community to have maximum impact across the three programs; and how to engage with school partners that did not wish to transition to e-learning.

For example, NSP had to adapt the Maroon Tutor Match program for COVID-19. “[Before], our students would contact the parent, set up the schedule, and set up the location to meet,” Snodgrass said. It is now much easier for student tutors to support the community since all meetings are on Zoom. Maroon Tutor Match has also had great success in supporting the community. Generally, children within Maroon Tutor Match see a letter increase in grades after just a quarter of tutoring.

When NSP went virtual on March 13, the first thing they did was contact their partners and ask how NSP could continue to provide support to their partners. “I’ve been encouraging my team and talking to my partners… we will partner together with a lot of patience, grace, and adaptability,” Snodgrass recalled. “Each of our [thirty] partnerships look very different,” she added, detailing the variety of the NSP’s partner services, which range from after-school Zooms for math help, to creating pre-school-level video lessons that teachers can show their students. NSP also connects school partners with UChicago on-campus opportunities for families to engage in.

The NSP had to ask their school partners a variety of questions: Who was going to switch to e-learning? Was there anything the NSP could do to supplement the school’s e-learning program? Were there any other ways for NSP to stay connected with the schools? How could the three programs NSP offered be adapted in order to maximize the impact NSP has on the surrounding neighborhoods? “Our main focus was [to figure out] how [we can] make the greatest impact, and we made our adjustments from there,” Snodgrass said.

For the school partners that chose not to partner with the NSP through e-learning, the NSP connected them with opportunities happening across campus. Even though these offerings may not have been education-focused, NSP found it important to share information on UChicago events and clubs with their school partners to share with neighborhood families. NSP offered families information on events sponsored by the UChicago Admissions office, UChicago Arts, and the Oriental Institute, student-run clubs, and other virtual events happening on campus. “We worked really closely with [the] UChicago German Club and [the] Phoenix Sustainability Initiative… and offered those kinds of offerings to families as well,” Snodgrass commented.

At the beginning of the pandemic, NSP struggled with the lack of uncertainty for the future. However, with a quick shift in focus and planning NSP has been able to maximize its impact on the community. Of the changes to NSP through the pandemic, Snodgrass hopes that the increased ability to convene and listen continues. “Trying to figure out how to get more students and community residents involved, what are the things that are most helpful for them.. Having these town halls and student advisory meetings to figure out ‘what is helpful for you at this time?’ is really beneficial.” Snodgrass also hopes that these changes continue after the pandemic.

NSP is currently hiring for positions with Maroon Tutor Match or school placements (at $14/hr). They also welcome volunteers. Students who want to get involved can visit NSP’s website or they can email NSP directly at nspers@gmail.com.