Kimberly Huckleby was dismayed by what she saw at the Ladies of Leadership (LOL) 2020 summer reading and enrichment program, which is an offshoot of the mentoring initiative she founded for minority girls ages 7 to 18.
Compared to participants in the summer 2019 enrichment program, the 2020 kids were faltering academically — "sinking in quicksand," as Huckleby describes it. Some of the younger children struggled to read, or even write their name.
LOL leaders attributed the decline to the closure of schools in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When parents must work, when internet is unreliable, and when children struggle to focus amid distractions at home, learning suffers.
So, last September, LOL opened a remote learning hub at the nonprofit's headquarters in Paddock Hills. Since then, about 20 boys and girls from several school districts — kindergartners to high school seniors — have received one-on-one help with schoolwork.
LOL didn't have funding for the hub beyond a six-week sponsorship. It did, however, have a $25,000 Black Empowerment Works (BEW) grant from United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Although that money was designated for the LOL mentoring program, LOL received permission from United Way to shift some funds to the remote learning hub.
"From its inception, flexibility has been a hallmark of Black Empowerment Works," says Jena' Bradley, United Way's senior manager of community impact. “Ladies of Leadership saw a gap — youth not having adequate, supportive spaces to complete virtual learning — and they addressed it. We couldn't ask for anything greater from them."
LOL also received $58,000 in federal CARES Act funds through the Hamilton County Youth Services Relief Fund. United Way administered the program on behalf of the county.
Huckleby tapped Jeanita Cummings to lead the hub. She's a consumer research scientist and product developer for Kao Corporation. She is also Black. Given that women and minorities are underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, she is a daily reminder to students — especially girls — of what is possible.
Still, it took time for some students to feel comfortable at the hub. They wanted to go home. One introverted boy wouldn't say hello. Other kids pulled hoodies up over their heads. Eventually, though, the staff built relationships. "Now every kid is so excited to learn and wanting to know more," Cummings says.
One key to that success: The hub's staff stays in touch with teachers and schools. A teacher who wants to ensure a student gets needed schoolwork can bring it to the hub. And when a parent's work schedule made it impossible to pick up a student's tablet at school, Cummings fetched it.
The hub is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — or longer if a parent needs more time to pick up a child — which means students must eat. In September, during a quarterly check-in with United Way's Bradley, LOL leaders mentioned the difficulty in securing a food vendor. The next day, Bradley met with another BEW grantee, Shannon Carr. Her organization, Isaiah 55 Inc., had received donated food that was available, as well as produce that was grown in its community gardens. Bradley connected LOL with Isaiah 55. The result: Isaiah 55 provides hot meals twice a week to students at the remote learning hub.
Learning, of course, has always been the priority. Mark Green is a working parent whose 9-year-old daughter Makayla is a special-needs student. Her challenges mounted when her west-side Cincinnati school went to remote learning, and Green felt ill-equipped to help her. “But she's doing a lot better since she's been at (the remote learning hub)," he says. “It's been a real big help for her, and for me."
Huckleby tells of a 10th-grader from Mount Healthy who was failing the first academic quarter. Once she began coming to the learning hub, she showed dramatic improvement. “She is thriving," says Huckleby, who met with the girl's guidance counselor in December. “It is so gratifying to me to know we're making a difference."