Iowa City program helps students navigate online learning

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — While Kevyn Doningueiz, 11, a sixth-grader at Mark Twain Elementary, focuses on his virtual learning, his younger siblings get help from volunteers who can teach them how to use the computer and access online classes — thanks to Neighborhood NESTS.

The Neighborhood NESTS — Nurturing Every Student Together Safely — is organized and operated by local not-for-profit groups for students in the Iowa City Community School District to access free Wi-Fi and get technical and academic support from volunteers, and for families to receive some child care services.

Doningueiz has been attending a Neighborhood NESTS operated by Open Heartland, a not-for-profit serving families in five mobile home communities in Johnson County whose residents are mainly Hispanic immigrants.

When Iowa City schools announced a virtual start to the school year, Open Heartland pivoted its mission to open a nest.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports the organization was founded just last year and visited mobile home communities to play with the children, drop off food, backpacks and school supplies, and coats, hats and gloves in the winter. Participants are operating the nest out of Parkview Church East Campus in Iowa City.

Doningueiz is enrolled in online learning and will not be returning in-person classes, even as the district transitions to standard learning on Sept. 28.

“I feel pretty nervous to do this the rest of the semester. I don’t want to have bad grades,” he said.

Coming to the nest is helpful for Doningueiz and his family, he said, because his mother doesn’t speak English.

“I’d be the one helping my siblings with online learning,” the 11-year-old said.

But at Open Heartland’s nest, volunteers are there to help Doningueiz’s nine- and five-year-old siblings as he focuses on his own classwork.

Open Heartland’s nest serves up to 25 students a day at no cost. Anyone who comes to the nest gets their temperature checked and is required to wear a mask.

Names are taken to help with contact tracing should someone test positive for COVID-19.

“Our goal is to get this family unit feeling empowered about how to use online learning,” said Deb Dunkhase, founder of Open Heartland.

The Iowa City Community School District, which started school Sept. 8, is continuing online only classes until Sept. 25, with a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education.

On Sept. 28, students who registered for standard enrollment will transition to school 50 percent on-site and 50 percent online.

About 55 percent of Iowa City students have registered for standard enrollment. The other 45 percent are enrolled in online learning.

Alejandra Ibarra’s three children attend the nest at Open Heartland. Before coming to the nest, she said she didn’t even know how to turn on a computer.

“They learn, and I learn, too,” Ibarra said in Spanish, speaking through interpreter Elizabeth Bernal, co-founder of Open Heartland.

Ibarra’s children, Carolina Pacheco, 10, Julieta Pacheco, six, and Romina Pacheco, four, are enrolled in the online learning program at Mark Twain Elementary.

Ibarra chose online learning for her children as she watched cases of the coronavirus rise in Johnson County. She’s scared for them, she said.

“I hope they can learn a little, and I hope they can succeed,” Ibarra said.

Missie Forbes, who is leading the Neighborhood NESTS initiative, said the idea sprung out of a concern for students who don’t have access to the internet and for English Language Learners. The organization also aims to address child care and provide academic support.

Forbes also is director of 4Cs of Johnson County, which opened a nest to serve families at risk of becoming homeless and to provide child care.

Combined, the nests are serving about 200 students.

A $50,000 grant from the city of Iowa City has helped cover some of the operating costs of the nests, but more donations and volunteers will be needed if the groups are to continue operating through the end of the school year, in June 2021.

All volunteers are subjected to background checks, which are provided by the school district.

The Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County will open two nests next week — one in Iowa City at St. Andrew Lutheran Church and one in Coralville at Life Church. Families who wish to use these sites will have to enroll and there is a fee to attend the Iowa City location.

Anthony Branch, program director of Neighborhood Centers, said he hopes the nests give respite, especially to older students who may be caring for their younger siblings while their parents are at work.

“There’s going to be a lot of chaos, a lot of challenges, but there will be small moments of success we have to hang our hats on,” Branch said. “We have to celebrate those small little victories as we’re all navigating these incredible challenges together.”

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