SILER CITY — When the pandemic led to the closing of in-person schooling last March, students and families faced deficits and challenges to their learning: lack of reliable internet access, support …
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SILER CITY — When the pandemic led to the closing of in-person schooling last March, students and families faced deficits and challenges to their learning: lack of reliable internet access, support with school and a quiet space to work.
Since then, Communities In Schools of Chatham County, a nonprofit that works to empower students to stay and do well in school, has worked to help students adjust to remote learning. In August, they discovered one way to help — through the creation of a “study corner” at Courtyard Coffee at Peppercorn in downtown Siler City.
“CIS is very much about supporting families and students in the educational process, as well as social and emotional support,” said Wes Lail, a CIS success coach with general youth services. “Normally, the vast majority of that is done in the schools. I mean, it’s Communities In Schools, so school is a big part of what we do. This has been part of an adaptation to the new reality.”
The study corner — housed in the back meeting space at Peppercorn — includes a long table with chairs set up at it, a desktop computer, school supplies and a new printer. The corner also has Wi-Fi information for the space (password: smartapple513), which Lail says is all thanks to Peppercorn owner Joan Underwood. One day, when Lail was buying coffee before returning to his CIS office around the corner, he was mentioning his ideas for a study space when Underwood first mentioned the possibility of using the space.
Once the location was decided, it took about a week or so to get the corner set up, Lail said. And though the study corner is technically the table in the back of the room, he said Underwood has been great about welcoming students and families into the larger space where they can connect to the Wi-Fi and do work as well. Peppercorn is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
“The hardest thing really was getting the word out to students, and then getting them to use it,” Lail said. “I schedule meetings with kids here. We have other organizations — other groups within our organizations — that also scheduled meetings here. So it’s been utilized both as a tutoring space, and also as a space for the program.”
Though CIS does formally schedule some use of the space, Lail said the study corner — including the computer, supplies and printer — is fully available to anyone who’d like to use it, whether they’re associated with CIS or not.
One such student, senior at Jordan-Matthews Kevin Manzanarez, used the study corner for the first few weeks of school, after finding the CIS table before the first day of classes.
“Just being stuck at home looking at a computer, it’s kind of different,” Manzanarez said. “And especially for me, because, you know, I feel like I learn better being in the classroom. But also I know the hazards of actually being in the classroom right now.”
Manzanarez is currently in the homestretch of working to submit early college applications — the first of which is to UNC, due Oct. 15. He said having a quiet space helps with being able to get long periods of work done.
“I kind of just wanted to be, you know, left alone, and to be more focused, and just have my own space,”
Within the first week of the study corner being open, Lail said he got “a lovely note” from a student thanking CIS for the space, “telling us that his household didn’t have enough space for him.” That student was Manzanarez.
“(It said) that the internet doesn’t always work and how important it was to him and he knew he could come here and knock a little bit of work out,” Lail said. “It was a very nice letter.”
Lail said CIS is grateful for all the community support they’ve received over the last few months to help students succeed — through mentoring, food distributions, donations and more.
“Realistically, like other nonprofits and things, we rely on the community and for doing this sort of stuff,” he said. “It’s been great that the community has supported us specifically — the Peppercorn has been wonderful at that. And that we all do a little bit better with some support.”
Still, he can’t help but think of all the other work left to be done.
As a society, Lail said, we’ve become reliant on schools to watch our children and provide meals and socialization, in addition to all the teaching that takes place. He’s looking at expanding study corners to other spaces, with hopes of getting enough volunteers to staff each location so students can receive tutoring support while they do work.
Does he feel the Peppercorn study corner is helping address deficits emphasized by the pandemic?
“In the way that a drop helps fill up the bucket? Sure,” Lail said. “I mean, it’s better than nothing. You know, so often educational support, it’s support. But like any house it’s a lot of different pillars that hold somebody up. This is one pillar, so I mean, I’d like to see more kids coming more often, but there’s difficulty scheduling and children can’t drive and parents work and all that sort of stuff. But it’s definitely helped.”
He added: “It’s just tough. You know, it’s tough for the kids in the family, and it’s just hard for people to find the time to do stuff for the kids.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.