Meeting virtual learning challenges for at-risk DC students in Southeast

The challenges for D.C. students who now know they will be attending school entirely online in the fall are compounded for children and families who do not have enough devices or adequate internet access to succeed in learning virtually.

A nonprofit serving at-risk kids in Barry Farm area of Southeast is working to ensure 500 children are not only fed and safe, but that they also are signed on when school starts Aug. 31.

A Horton’s Kids participant shares a smile while holding a device that she will use for online learning. (Courtesy Horton’s Kids)

Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said Thursday that according to a technology survey that he wants each family to take, 44% of parents reported needing a device for their kids to sign in online.

It’s a number that does not surprise Billy Fettweiss, who runs external operations for Horton’s Kids, a nonprofit that has been serving kids from kindergarten through high school for 30 years in Wellington Park.

“The children we serve are growing up in a neighborhood where almost all the families earn less than $10,000 a year. They are geographically isolated. Basically, they have a lot of barriers to their success that are out of their control,” Fettweiss said.

Horton’s Kids, which operated out of a community center to support neighborhood kids in their education, nutrition, basic needs and emotional support, quickly had to pivot operations online and close the doors it prided itself on remaining open to anyone who needed help.

“One of the things we realized early in the pandemic was that we weren’t sure every family in our neighborhood had the technology they needed to connect to school and Horton’s Kids,” Fettweiss said.

Through a survey, the organization learned most of the families had one device provided by the school system, but most families did not have enough computers or tablets so that every child in the home could be doing their schoolwork at the same time.

“The other thing we learned is the Wi-Fi in the neighborhood, although present, is built into an old infrastructure; and it was not able to handle 500 children logging into Zoom meetings at once,” as was required to access some DCPS content, Fettweiss said.

Starting in August, the school system plans to operate using Canvas and Microsoft Teams, but both require internet access.

With a grant and donations to the Horton’s Kids Family Resilience Fund, Fettweiss said the organization purchased and distributed 40 laptops and plans to continue providing Wi-Fi hotspots to ensure each kid can get online.

Larry Ingram knows the problem all too well. He and his family have moved from Wellington Park, but he said the area is a well-known dead zone for Wi-Fi.

“It’s hard to get a connection. It’s surrounded by woods. So the reception is not that good. We always got different internet companies to try to come to Horton’s Kids to make sure they keep us connected to the internet, because we have kids who need the service,” Ingram said.

Ingram’s daughter Faith has been a participant in the Horton’s Kids program for 10 years. Faith goes to McKinley Tech and dreams of going to college.

Ingram credits Horton’s Kids for guiding her toward academic success since she was 5 years old. When asked to describe the organization, only one word popped to Ingram’s mind.

“I would say joyful. Joyful. A great environment for the kids to be at. I would say that Horton’s Kids is the type of place that’s needed in Ward 8,” Ingram said.

His 15-year-old daughter is taking advantage of the organization’s partnership with the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, where teens are able to get experience and have a summer job despite limitations presented by the pandemic.

The program will extend another two weeks, according to Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn.

“I am personally, and I know the mayor is, proud of the team at the Department of Employment Services and all of our host partners for adapting so quickly and making this summer work. We’ve had over 8,000 young people in our community engaging in this program; and I’m happy our young people will get more time to get more skills and engage more deeply with their programs and their mentors,” Kihn said during a news conference Thursday.

Horton’s Kids is still working to raise donations to support children throughout the pandemic and has an Amazon wish list of needed items for those who want to contribute.


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