OST Voices: Episode #5 | The Fishing School
Sarah Ricker, Communications Intern, The Fishing School
A year ago COVID-19 became a shocking reality for us all. As an educational leader in our community, The Fishing School (TFS) recognized the need to respond with creativity, innovation, and action. We appreciate our partnerships with the DC Out-of-School-Time Coalition and DC Action, whose work also embody these characteristics. Together, we work to ensure our community feels safe, heard, and supported as we manage extraordinary challenges.
This April will mark a year of distance learning, which has been difficult for students. TFS has approached the new normal with compassion, humanity, and care. Throughout the pandemic, we have not wavered in our commitment to our mission to prepare elementary and middle school youth for success in high school and life by improving their academic performance and life skills and engaging them and their parents in intensive, multi-year, research-based programs and activities. Since our inception in 1990, TFS has served more than 7,000 youth and families. We know that with the proper interventions, students can succeed in high school and beyond. Often, these opportunities are not equally available to students across DC. According to a study by the Afterschool Alliance, parents in DC reported an average cost of $167 per week spent on after school programming. For many of the families we serve, the cost of afterschool and summer programming is beyond their means. The Fishing School provides our program at no cost to the students who need us most.
Connecting Through a Screen
Last spring, our students’ needs began to evolve. Foreseeing potential pandemic-related challenges, we created a Distance Learning Team to develop and launch our virtual programming. We elevated the use of our current tools and increased communications with our community to make sure our students could access important educational supports. We also worked closely with school principals to support their staff not only after school, but also during school hours. Through these collaborative partnerships, we have aligned our programs with teachers’ lessons to reinforce concepts and build strong, holistic academic support. Students receive support from TFS throughout the virtual school day with enrichment activities, math or literacy tutorials, and small group breakouts when teachers shift between lessons.
When designing our virtual program, we proactively sought input from parents to ensure we were incorporating community voice in our plans. Parents and guardians who participated in our focus group noted that TFS’s engaging and active virtual curriculum provided a much needed mental break for students. Families highlighted the opportunity for their children to socialize with friends in a fun atmosphere as a top reason for enrolling. Students have also shared that they are happy to have a way to connect with other children, even just virtually. One third-grader, David, was very introverted at the beginning of this virtual school year. He had a hard time socializing with his peers and was hesitant to express himself. Over the course of the school year, David has come out of his shell during TFS virtual afterschool programming. He recently told his TFS instructor that he is glad to be a part of this class online. One of the reasons he likes The Fishing School is that he feels comfortable with the other kids and appreciates the way they are nice to each other.
Our innovative program is designed to keep students engaged, address the achievement gap, and mitigate learning loss. We also realize that some lessons need to be hands-on. That’s why TFS features Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) as a critical part of our curriculum to inspire our students to pursue careers in fields where minorities are traditionally underrepresented. In order to keep this aspect of our curriculum interactive, TFS provides students STEAM kits, filled with the materials required for exciting projects. During one recent activity, students were introduced to engineering as they raced one another to build the tallest, most stable, freestanding structure with limited items. In this exciting event, our students used marshmallows, tape, uncooked spaghetti, and string to become architects. Combining principles of math, art, and reading comprehension, students learned to think creatively with limited resources.
Deepening Impact, Broadening Reach
Although we effectively adapted our curriculum, we still have experienced and learned about some of the inevitable adverse effects of distance learning. Before the pandemic, we partnered with four schools and had capacity to serve over 400 students, generating positive academic growth in the schools with students most in need of our support. Research has found concerning evidence that students, at a national level, are not as engaged in school as they were before the pandemic because of unreliable access to virtual learning and increased absence. Experts say these factors, combined with systemic inequities in education, indicate that students of color will be six to twelve months behind at the end of this school year, reinforcing the need for additional OST instruction.
Fortunately, we continue to strategically and creatively consider how to reach more students. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) approved grantees to broaden their impact and enroll students outside of formal school partnerships. We can now enroll 1st through 5th grade students from any Title-I eligible school in Washington, DC. Following this guidance, we are launching OST programming at several apartment complexes across DC in the 2020-21 school year. We launched a partnership with a local real estate development company to address the academic needs of students in these communities through essential, high-quality academic interventions. Additionally, we recently launched Saturday Study Groups, which provide hands-on, small group tutoring to help keep students on pace with their academic goals. All enrolled students are eligible to sign up for extra support on weekends that will provide personalized instruction to stave off learning loss.
Children need academic support to recover from learning loss experienced during the pandemic, but they also need trusting relationships with educators, social interactions with their peers, and fun, carefree moments where they can just be kids. OST programs like The Fishing School bring all of these important experiences together. Take it from Henry, a first-grader who participates in TFS programming every day.
"Being in Ms. Phillips' class helps me to learn more and helps with my writing and math,” Henry said. “ I love the dance breaks because I don't get to do them at school in the morning and it keeps me excited."
TFS will continue to innovate and adapt our programs as needed to connect students like Henry with the enriching experiences that OST programs like ours are uniquely positioned to provide.
Check out previous episodes of OST Voices: