Pittsburgh learning hubs, built through teamwork, are here for you

By Melissa Rayworth

Pittsburgh’s Community Learning Hubs filled an immediate need when the pandemic erupted. When public schools suddenly closed, many essential workers had school-age kids who couldn’t stay home alone. Where would these children spend their days?

Summer was months away and yet these kids needed the equivalent of full-time summer camp.

“ ‘Specialty camp’ is what we were calling it at that point,” says Dr. Lisa Abel-Palmieri, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, who partnered with Amy Malen, assistant deputy director at Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, to begin building what became the Community Learning Hubs.

The Boys & Girls Clubs quickly began opening their doors early each morning to host the kids of essential workers and do whatever was needed: distributing grab-and-go lunches to photocopying school worksheets and shepherding kids through remote learning.

Soon, other organizations joined the collaboration. Places like Bible Center Church in Homewood filled a huge need by hosting summer learning sessions.

And when it became clear that Pittsburgh Public Schools would be closed for in-person learning in the fall, everyone focused on one question, says Tanya Baronti, director of United for Children at the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania: How do we make sure that working families and children have the support they need?

“People just activated really quickly,” says Malen. They “were willing to just innovate and rethink what their entire programming looked like” in order to be open during school hours and after school.

One year later, Learning Hubs remain a vital resource and will likely be busy all summer. (Parents: Find them here.) But the Hubs also represent possibilities beyond our current, pandemic-focused moment. This new level of community support for learning is too valuable to lose when the virus ebbs.

So the Tomorrow campaign sat down (virtually) with many of those who helped create this collaboration and asked: What made this ambitious project successful and what aspects of it should continue and grow after the pandemic ends?

Community Learning Hubs in the Pittsburgh region.

Listening and Communicating

The Hubs organizers didn’t make assumptions about what people needed; they asked.

“We called over 2,000 families and had one-on-one conversations with them on the phone,” says Abel-Palmieri.

It was clear that basic needs had to be met in order for learning to happen. So the Hubs began offering food distribution, including food trucks to deliver hot meals to several Housing Authority communities – another chance to ask parents and kids what they need.

Thinking Flexibility and Collaboratively

“Families are not monolithic,” says Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the nonprofit Trying Together, a central player in the Learning Hubs initiative. Each family has different needs, so the community must be ready to respond in a wide range of ways.

That’s just what happened.

“It was really sort of a ‘whatever it takes, all hands-on deck’ creative problem solving” situation, Malen says. “We had funding with stimulus dollars. United Way had funding. Trying Together is the childcare expert. We had out-of-school time partners and childcare partners … the power of people coming together is pretty incredible.”

Among the solutions they found: Learners of different ages have different needs. So older students who could be at home learning remotely were connected online with adults at Hub locations who help with tutoring or mentoring.

And not all visitors stay all day. Some teens from Sto-Rox and McKeesport learn at their school buildings in the morning and at a Hub in the afternoon.

Growing the Role of OST Providers

Communities in our region are realizing just how essential out-of-school-time (OST) providers are, Baronti says. And connections between OST providers and schools are growing.

What might it look like if those partnerships grew even further? Abel-Palmeiri says districts can reach out to the Boys & Girls Clubs and other providers to create custom learning programs for their students – especially this summer and into the fall to help with learning gaps.

To pay for this, she says, schools can use up to 20% of their ESSER funding. They can also formalize their budding partnerships with out-of-school providers to keep this work going.

Local corporations also pitched in with donations of masks, sanitizers and school supplies, as well as funding to support Learning Hubs at OST locations. It would be valuable for that generosity to continue.

State funding would help, too: “At this time there, is no dedicated funding toward after-school programs and summer programs,” Baronti says, but what if that changed?

“There were a lot of strong partnerships before,” Malen says, but we’ve entered a new era of collaboration and progress.

Abel-Palmieri agrees, and she offers this sentiment to everyone involved: “Let’s not let the progress that we’ve made in terms of collaborating go away.”

This article is part of a series for “Tomorrow” powered by Remake Learning. “Tomorrow” will explore – through virtual events, grantmaking, and storytelling – what we can do today to make tomorrow a more promising place for all learners. Follow along or share your hopes for today’s young people using the hashtag #RemakeTomorrow and tagging @RemakeLearning. Learn more about Remake Learning here. And read more “Tomorrow” articles published on Kidsburgh.