Across the country, educators, kids and families have experienced major disruptions due to the pandemic – ones they are still undergoing. Here in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, Kidz Express offers direct support for kids and families. Through tutoring and homework help, we support their teachers, too.
Kidz Express began when our two founders, Duane Ehresman and Warren King, were looking for a way to provide activities to inner-city children to help them build the self-confidence they need to succeed. For the past 22 years, we’ve been offering an after-school and mentoring program for kids between the ages of 5 and 14 as well as a job training program for those between the ages of 14 and 28. When Chicago Public Schools closed 50 buildings, we were fortunate to be able to repurpose one of them, so that it has continued to support local children and youth.
The unfortunate reality for the kids in the Austin community is that even before the pandemic, most were falling behind in school due to the lack of educational opportunities as a result of poverty, the digital divide and underfunded schools. Virtual learning has hindered kids from progressing further in their development, especially the kids in our program, who are already on average three years behind in math and five years behind in English.
We’ve Learned to Work with Hybrid and Remote Learning, Too
When virus positivity rates first hit between 2 and 3 percent, we moved towards a hybrid format working in conjunction with the schools in our district to ease the transition for students. As positivity rates began to rise up to 14 and 15 percent, we closed down our building and moved the program to an entirely virtual format. Our mentors and tutors continued working with the kids by hosting tutoring and mentorship sessions via Zoom, which ensured homework would get completed.
Prior to the pandemic, our kids were showing statistically significant progress in English and math because of the education and tutoring programs we’ve created. We knew it was critical that we maintained the support and relationships built up with each kid to maintain the progress they’ve made thus far. Building and supporting those relationships has always been important to us, but over the past year that work has taken on even greater significance. In the Austin community, Kidz Express is known not just for furthering children’s educational goals, but for giving children and families a safe haven no matter what.
Currently, each young person we work with participates in our programs for an average of five years and mentors for an average of 10 years. Most of our mentors went through the Kidz Express program as well. They understand the challenges these kids face every day and can help guide them down a path to overcome the obstacles they’re confronted with. These mentors know what the impact is of having a role model they can always turn to and look up to. To further these bonds, our mentors are connecting with the kids during this pandemic by playing video games, video chatting, tutoring and watching movies with them to maintain the relationships and foundation of trust they’ve established.
Additionally, during this pandemic we want to provide as many support systems to the kids and their families as possible. We’ve hosted several food drives, cookouts, household item giveaways, and toy drives to allow the community to come out and get critical items they need.
Even though Chicago Public Schools has reopened for a limited number of students, distance learning will continue to be difficult and pose challenges. However, the Kidz Express mission stays the same – creating a safe and healthy environment for our kids so they can prosper once they leave the program and become a mentor themselves one day.