What We’ve Learned
Guest blog by Barbara Couto Sipe, President & CEO, NextUp RVA
The COVID-19 crisis has shined a light on many inequities in our society, one in particular being access to quality educational opportunities. When schools closed last spring, our current model, which brought high-quality afterschool programs directly to the schools, was no longer possible. At NextUp RVA, we immediately began the work to transition our network of programs to a virtual platform.
About NextUp RVA
At NextUp, we believe that when students participate in high-quality out-of-school time (OST) programs, they benefit academically, physically and socially. We are a coordinated system of expanded learning primarily for middle schools, and we’ve recently begun to expand into elementary and high schools. NextUp isn’t one single program or in one specific building. Rather, it’s a coordinated network of providers neatly managed under one system, giving students better access to quality enrichment that puts them on a path to success.
For a minimum of two days every week, students can participate in activities based on their interests. Students can choose from classes in Science & Technology, Sports & Health, Mentoring & Leadership, Arts & Humanities, and Career & Work Readiness.
Our Virtual Shift
To create this online portal, NextUp staff looked to what was already familiar to students, their school district’s online platform. We paired this platform with Zoom, and within two weeks were able to launch our online portal. In keeping with their school’s existing platform, we had a system that students were already familiar with, which made the transition process easier for families.
Before the pandemic, when we were offering onsite programs, we were in 5 schools throughout the district. Over the course of the summer, we scheduled and funded programs virtually and had more than 300 students participate. In switching to a virtual platform, we quickly found that the platform gave us the ability to reach more schools and were able to expand to all 8 Richmond public middle schools.
This new online platform would not have been possible without that dedication of our providers. We worked alongside new and existing providers to transform their classes into the virtual space. We secured grant funding to provide technology and video equipment critical to the success of the classes. Additionally, we created trainings to walk our providers through the process of virtual teaching. Many of our classes utilize materials that students would not have readily at home. We were able to work with our providers to secure funding and donations to provide these materials and kits, which our providers delivered to the students.
Action Items for 2020–2021
At the end of the summer, we partnered with Capital One for a pro-bono Design Thinking Project that gathered feedback from students, parents, and program providers to help inform our virtual platform going forward. We gathered valuable data that we turned into action-items to improve our platform for the upcoming 2020–2021 school year.
1. First, we understood the need to expand our communications efforts. We approached this from two angles. We increased our presence on social media, designing messages for two audience segments: families and program providers. We also hired a Virtual Community Manager to connect directly with students and families. Under this role, we’ve instituted virtual office hours, where students can drop in during their lunch break and ask questions. We’ve begun using Bitmoji Classrooms as a space for announcements, links to join classes, and a place to display perfect attendance. This role has proved invaluable to us, as we can see directly the benefits of increased open communication with students and families. You can view the Virtual Community Manager job description in Every Hour Counts COVID Resource Guide.
2. Next, we updated our registration portal so both parents and students could easily access our site, view program offerings, and schedule participation in programs. Prior to the start of the Fall session, we had over 200 parents fill out interest forms, which is how we confirm that the student is enrolled in school. When it came time to register for classes, however, students were simply not registering. We had a problem.
It became clear that just because we had increased communications efforts, we were not going to have a direct correlation to increased registration. Why? Our registration process was too cumbersome. We were having parents submit an interest form, followed by a registration form, and then having them ultimately register their child(ren) for classes.
Now, we simply have parents fill out an interest form, and once their child(ren) is confirmed as an enrolled student with their district, parents can register them for NextUp classes. We then follow back up to complete any missing registration data. What seemed straightforward to us, was anything but for the families trying to sign their students up for NextUp programs.
3. We overcame the registration process hurdle, only to realize that student participation in classes was still lagging. The problem came down to two things: communication with students and our website. Although we had stepped up our communication efforts, we were not specifically targeting students. Instead, we were focused on parents and our program providers.
Our Virtual Community Manager understood the need to meet students where they are and started reaching out to students via email and Google Classroom. Additionally, each day students are invited to pop in for a virtual Lunch Hour where they can ask questions about their classes. Giving students a platform to use their voice has been incredibly successful in increasing participation.
Our website, likewise, was geared more towards engagement with schools, because we relied on our relationship with schools to reach students. With the onset of the pandemic, this method of delivery was no longer successful. We completely revamped our website to be a more user-friendly space for families to get to know NextUp and easily register their students.
All of these efforts — the virtual learning platform, increased participation, and new communication strategies — have worked to increase student access and participation in learning enrichments. Weekly participation rates tripled from Week 1 of the Fall session to the last week of that session.
A Look Ahead
We are now hard at work implementing new strategies to continue serving Richmond students, schools and providers in the virtual space. Areas we are exploring currently include:
1. managing a coordinated approach for providers to deliver class materials to students, and
2. leveraging students’ unique skill sets so that we can place them in classes and within groups that help them expand on those skills.
2020 has been a challenging year for us all. Yet, we have risen to the challenge and have created what we believe to be a fundamentally critical aspect to the NextUp system, our virtual learning platform.
For more information on the impacts of NextUp RVA’s virtual learning experiences, check out their 2019–20 Annual Report, Creating Access to Learning Opportunities Beyond the Bell.
NextUp RVA is a system of community leaders and service providers committed to putting more youth on the path to success. NextUp coordinates and funds activities and learning experiences at partner Richmond schools. The intermediary also promotes awareness, sponsors providers’ development and strengthens overall policies that shape out-of-school time.