The decision didn’t come easy for Project Transformation Central Texas. As the coronavirus pandemic began impacting plans in March, executive director Lynne Rhodes and the Project Transformation network began to rethink its summer model.
Not having in-person programming was a painful direction to go in, especially considering Project Transformation began as a summer day camp for children in Dallas in 1998. In the decades since, Project Transformation has grown to include eight chapters, including the Central Texas one in Tarrant County.
As a participant in Read Fort Worth’s Summer Scholars Collaborative (SSC), Project Transformation decided to plot a new course.
“We realized we needed to scrap the idea of having in-person programming for everyone’s safety, but we also realized that we wanted to offer families program options that would truly be beneficial to their situation during the pandemic,” Rhodes said. “So we surveyed parents about what they most wanted, divided our folks up into teams and reimagined our summer program.”
Project Transformation pivoted to accommodate the needs that arose for families in an uncertain world. Other Summer Scholars Collaborative programs did the same, such as Reading Partners, which partnered with Project Transformation. Together, these SSC programs helped fill an opportunity gap for young students, many from Fort Worth ISD, in need of literacy tutoring and family resources.
Normally, Project Transformation Central Texas offers an eight-week summer day camp focusing on literacy skills and social-emotional learning for children from first through sixth grade at three host sites, with two in Fort Worth. Reading Partners had planned to partner with Clayton Youth Enrichment Services to provide onsite literacy support for children attending the Clayton summer program at Morningside Elementary School.
Just as the pandemic hit, Reading Partners was launching “Reading Partners Connects,” an online one-on-one tutoring platform that allowed its team to serve students whether physical school doors are opened or closed. The plan was to pilot Reading Partners Connects (RPCx) in the summer in preparation for a fall rollout nationally.
Around the same time, Project Transformation learned that food insecurity was as big of a concern as educational resources for families. In addition to literacy support, program sites transitioned into meal distribution centers with Project Transformation partners delivering bags of food to hand out.
An opportunity was born.
“In early spring, Reading Partners discovered that Project Transformation was going to provide meals and virtual services to Fort Worth families, and Reading Partners worked with them to pilot RPCx with first-to-fourth grade students,” said Lisa Bracken, executive director for Reading Partners North Texas. “This was an ideal partnership, as Project Transformation’s service areas included George Clarke Elementary, one of Reading Partners North Texas’ partner schools. Reading Partners worked with Project Transformation students every Monday and Wednesday afternoon throughout July.”
Project Transformation partnered with Food for the Soul to provide boxes of fresh produce each week and the Tarrant Area Food Bank to distribute lunches to participants each day. Project Transformation interns also created video content that followed its summer curriculum, which parents and students could access whenever convenient.
“There were challenges and activities the children were encouraged to do through the videos, and we were surprised at how many kids had their parents take photos of them doing the activities and post it to our photos page,” Rhodes said.
“Through our partnership with Read Fort Worth, we were able to offer online reading assessments to our students. Those students who were assessed were then able to receive live-virtual literacy tutoring through a new partnership we developed with Reading Partners. We saw solid increases in reading levels in our post-summer assessments thanks to this option.”
Students served using the RPCx system were connected with tutors through private, secure Zoom rooms.
Project Transformation administered a pre- and post-summer assessments, with data showing that 90 percent of students demonstrated literacy improvement.
“Anecdotally, we discovered that tutors who take the time to engage and build rapport with students at the start of the lesson can create a welcoming learning atmosphere similar to the traditional Reading Partners environment,” Bracken said. “Every student looked forward to their session and to their tutor, again confirming the importance of using social-emotional learning as a foundation for skill instruction.”
Project Transformation served 238 children this summer, its highest number to date and up for the usual 210-220. A combination of technology was used to reach children, such as Zoom for live-virtual check-ins, assessments and literacy tutoring; and a secure website for parents and participants to access the videos, get information and post photos of their children engaging with the activities. All forms and surveys were accessible through text and email.
Rhodes also stressed the social-emotional piece in Project Transformation’s programming.
“We wanted to make sure our participants had an opportunity to express their emotions in a safe learning environment given that COVID-19 had kept them isolated and away from many of their normal interactions since March,” she said. “We gave participants the options to join live-virtual check-ins where they playfully engaged with interns while practicing some SEL skills.”
The staffs of Project Transformation and Reading Partners had several key takeaways from a summer of virtual programming that mirrored each. Namely, that everyone was in this together, live virtual program is more effective than recorded, more students can be reached, and they can be engaged in fun and educational ways.
“We are so grateful for the collaboration with Read Fort Worth to connect us with Project Transformation and allow this summer digital pilot to take place,” Bracken said. “This has been pivotal for not only our Reading Partners’ North Texas region, but the pilot findings have provided all 12 of our regions with growth opportunities to be better equipped to serve students in the 2020-21 school year.
That wasn’t the only virtual offering this past summer. Tarrant County College partnered with SSC programs United Community Centers and Artes de la Rosa on a virtual creative writing course. Tasha McGhie, an Instructional Assistant in the Writing & Learning Center at TCC, pitched to UCC and Artes the idea of adding a whimsical creative writing program that included a publishing element.
The hope was to get youth excited about reading and writing, with TCC helping to implement its Write On! program into the curriculum of UCC and Artes. TCC’s group of tutors designed and recorded both synchronous and asynchronous writing workshops, and hosted a live Writer’s Corner weekly. Detailed feedback was provided for all students who submitted written work.
“We feel that the kids learned that they were better at storytelling than they initially thought, and they learned that writing is difficult even for experienced writers,” McGhie said. “The most important thing about writing is to write. It’s a discipline that can help us process thoughts and emotions and isn’t relegated to the four walls of a classroom.”
A total of 33 students were served through Zoom and email. As a pilot program designed, developed and executed amid COVID-19 pandemic, the partners worked through the tech challenges arose to build relationships with students to cultivate an environment of trust and risk-taking. The students found no judgement, only encouragement and curiosity from the tutors, McGhie added.
Based on what was learned during the first go-around, McGhie hopes to partnership returns in the summers to come.
“Moving forward, we would more intentionally build the program with our tutors as partners through the entire process, thereby forgoing asynchronous workshops,” she added. “This would help us ensure the ideal atmosphere is cultivated uniformly throughout. It is also critical for us to have small student-to-tutor/advocate ratios because the individualized attention and support makes all the difference.”