If you think having one or two teenagers studying at home remotely is a challenge, can you imagine the challenge Terry Atwater was facing? Atwater is founder and CEO of It Takes a Village, a non-profit operator of transitional homes for teens in foster care. He operates seven homes that focus on teaching independent living skills and college or vocational readiness to 25 teenagers.

So when Wichita public schools announced all middle and high school students would start the school year learning remotely, he immediately knew that wasn’t going to work for his youth.

Working from home is tough even for single adults with only minimum distractions. However, families who sheltered in place during the height of the pandemic can relate to the frustrations of trying to stay focused on your work with everyone else at home.

Atwater said he immediately knew his “kids” would easily become distracted and above all, he recognized the personal growth youth gain from maintaining routines and developing good habits. Both are important life skills students can use in school and in life.

Everyone has days when they don’t feel like working, going to school, or exercising. However, when those things are habits, they become second nature and people do them without thinking.

Atwater says instead of his kids developing habits of taking classes in their pajamas, watching the television screen instead of their computer screen, and taking conveniently long breaks to the bathroom, he said he knew it was important for them to have a daily routine as close to a real school environment as possible.

“They [need to] get up at the same time every day, come [to a location] every day, have lunch at the same time, and leave at the same time,” stressed Atwater.

So he set out to find a way to create as close to a structured school day environment as he could for his teens and still comply with Kansas Board of Regents COVID-19 requirements.

Boys and Girls Club

Anne Chandler, director of resource development for the Boys and Girls Club of Southcentral Kansas, had the same reaction as Atwater. When she heard USD 259’s virtual learning announcement, she knew there would be gaps, and she and her team began developing a plan to fill them.

Since USD 259 had met all of the students' technology needs by providing them with internet-connected laptops. The gap, they found, was that same need for structure.

Chandler began by reaching out to the families who had signed up for the club’s after-school program.

“Some families had signed up early for our after-school program, so we talked to them first and then we surveyed the rest of our membership from the last two years,” said Chandler.

These families all wanted their students to have a schedule similar to a regular school day; to get up, get dressed and go to a location dedicated to learning that didn’t have the distractions of home.

Teen Learning Academy

The club had some space in their facility on Opportunity Drive. However, meeting the Kansas Regents’ COVID-19 requirements would severely limit the number of students they could serve.

Thanks to a board member’s connection, they reached out to Bishop Wade Moore, founder and dean of Urban Preparatory Academy, a K-7 charter school operating in the “old” Mueller Elementary School building at 24th and Estelle.

“We met on a Wednesday for a walk-through [of vacant space in the building]” says Chandler, “and in less than a week, we were signing a contract for the Teen Learning Academy. It was like the stars aligned.”

Currently, the TLA serves 31 students in two main classrooms. The plan is to open a third classroom by the end of October. At full capacity, the academy will be able to serve 117 students.

“There is already a waiting list …all we need is to hire some additional staff,” Chandler said.

In addition to maintaining their online academic schedule, students are given exercise breaks, and fed lunch and snacks. After normal school hours, the students transition to the traditional Boys and Girls After School Program. The cost of both programs is just $30 for the entire year.

It Takes A Village

Like the Boys and Girls Club, Atwater had to find a building, but he also had to find the money to finance the program he envisioned. He found support from the first organization he reached out to, Fidelity Bank. He had partnered with them in the past to create opportunities for some of the youth in his program.

“Fidelity basically just asked, ‘what can we do to help?’ I drew up a plan and a budget and we went to work.”

Finding a building was a bigger challenge. “We looked at several locations but the pricing was out of reach.” Then Atwater spoke with his pastor, Dr. Kevass Harding of Dellrose United Methodist Church. Dr. Harding came back with price It Takes a Village could afford.

The facility has enough room for his students and some para-educators from USD 259. In addition, there’s a commercial kitchen where It Takes A Village staff members prepare the students a hot and delicious lunch that USD 259 can’t rival.

Technology was a challenge, initially. “We tried using several hot-spots [to provide internet access] but it wasn’t enough,” Atwater said. “Ultimately, we had Cox Cable run a dedicated line, now everything works.”

Another sponsor is covering the monthly internet bill, and It Takes a Village staff members transport the students to and from the “school” site.

Both groups are committed to maintaining their program until there is no longer a need. While USD 259 announced an initial nine-week plan for middle and high school students to study remotely, second nine-week plans have yet to be announced.

“We see the students benefitting from having a classroom-like environment. We’ll be sure to make that happens for them,” says Atwater of VLP. Chandler of TLA agrees. “The hiring piece is the one thing slowing us down now. Once we’re fully staffed, we can go a long time on this model.”

This story was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans.

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