Going the Distance: Bringing learning to low-income ESL students

When Walnut Hills High School began distance learning in early March due to COVID-19, Maribel Cortes Conde considered how fortunate she was to be able to immediately provide her daughters, Tamara and Sophia, with everything they needed to make it possible.

“I saw them very engaged in front of their laptops and then I wondered how our low-income kids were doing,” says Cortes Conde, an advanced lead engineer at GE Aviation. “Thinking about all the kids within CPS [Cincinnati Public Schools] who are very vulnerable and probably without the privileges of having all they needed to continue their education at home just broke my heart.”

A member of the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA Community Council, Cortes Conde started brainstorming ideas with the chamber’s president Alfonso Cornejo shortly after Governor Mike DeWine’s “shelter-in-place” order went into effect. She and Cornejo soon learned that Mireika “Marie” Kobayashi, of the school district’s Office of Second Language Acquisition (OSLA), and Sarah Madrigal, restorative practices coordinator at Dater High School, were already on the case.

Madrigal says that the current crisis has only further highlighted the chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots.” According to Pew Research Center, 18% of Hispanic teens surveyed said they did not have access to a home computer, compared with 9% of white teens and 11% of black teens.

“Our students with devices and access to the internet in their homes have been able to connect with their teachers, participate in online learning, and maintain progress made during our regular school year,” Madrigal adds. “Students without that access risk falling behind and forgetting important concepts they will need to graduate. Many of our vulnerable ESL [English as a Second Language] students do not have access to a computer or the internet and are being negatively impacted by their inability to participate along with their peers. This initiative seeks an equitable learning environment for all of our students to find success.”

Kobayashi and Madrigal coordinated with Cortes Conde and Cornejo to run an equipment drive through the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA Foundation to raise money and broaden the awareness of the OSLA’s efforts.

With support from various businesses and nonprofits, the office has made much needed headway to increase remote learning opportunities for its ESL students. So far, the district has received enough equipment and monetary donations to acquire 500 laptops and desktop computers for the low-income ESL students. Officials are also working with local internet service providers to secure internet access for selected students.

The first round of laptops was given to high school-aged students. Future deliveries of desktop computers are earmarked for students who are not eligible to borrow devices from the district.

Donors to the district’s distance learning initiative include GE’s CoreTech, Interact for Health, Procter & Gamble, Stett 4 Kids and more.

“We understand that now more than ever, actions speak louder than words,” says Kristin Okhuysen, P&G’s liaison to the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA. “While demand for our support is broad, some places need more help than others. In the U.S., this need is especially poignant in minority communities. Our kids are our future and we hope this helps set them up for continued success in their education.”

Jordan Kelley, chief operating officer and co-founder of Stett 4 Kids, says Lynn Anstett, the nonprofit’s founder, reached out to a contact at CPS and asked how she could help. When she found out about the distance learning initiative, Anstett contacted the Cincinnati Computer Cooperative to purchase 100 refurbished desktop computers.

“The initial goal was to provide anything students need for their schooling,” Kelley notes. “Now because of this pandemic, these students need the tools to complete their schooling from home so we have shifted our focus.”

Madrigal says that the entire OSLA staff is amazed by and grateful for the support they’ve received during this time.

“As with so many things, we rely on our amazing community partners to meet the needs of our students and their families,” Madigral adds. “I think that Cincinnati as a community recognizes and values its role in filling in gaps and providing needed services. We are blessed to live in a city where our community understands that in order to be a truly great community, we must lift each other up along the way.”

Continued COVID-19 coverage has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, a program run in partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Local Media Association.

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Read more articles by Aiesha D. Little.

Aiesha Little is a lover of jazz music, cosplay, and all things geeky. You can find more of her work at www.aieshadlittle.com.