Columbia County Community Connections Supports Families Navigating At-Home Learning with Virtual After-School Programming

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When school buildings closed in March to keep students and educators safe during the coronavirus pandemic, parents became full-time teachers overnight. Mother of three Cherita Jones said motivating her kids to complete schoolwork has been difficult—but virtual after-school programming provided by Columbia County Community Connections’ (CCCC) Dream Academy has made a big impact.

“Being at home can become very boring for kids,” said Jones. “The Dream Academy helps my daughter Kiana keep continuity and normalcy during this time of instability and uncertainty. She looks forward to seeing her Dream Academy teachers and students. The daily Zoom meetings are fun, educational, and interactive. She has an enjoyable activity to look forward to every day that breaks up the monotony.”

The digital programming offered by CCCC, the local Georgia Family Connection Collaborative since 1999, varies from life skills and meal preparation, to Georgia Shape physical activities, to math tutoring.

“It’s critical to reach out to parents to see what their needs are,” said retired educator Betty Kelley, who runs Dream Academy. “Because they aren’t in school or at our facility, their needs have changed. Parents don’t really know how to assess skills and perform a teacher’s duties. That was their greatest fear—that they weren’t doing it right. They felt a little intimidated.”

Dream Academy serves students from North Harlem Elementary and Euchee Creek Elementary, with priority enrollment for students in foster care. The program—funded by the Department of Family & Children Services via the Afterschool Care Program and United Way of the CSRA—is housed at the CCCC offices.

“Changing the environment makes a big difference for the kids. It kickstarts their day all over again when they come to our site,” said Teka Downer, CCCC executive director. “When the county buildings shut down abruptly due to COVID-19, we had to get out—and that was not in our disaster plan. We had to figure out how to maintain programming when administratively we couldn’t operate the way we used to.”

CCCC also oversees the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs), which offer after-school academic enrichment, tutorial and support services, and literacy development for middle and high school students. “We serve students with all different types of needs,” said Downer. “Some are at risk of failing, some need social intervention.”

The 21st CCLCs and Dream Academy typically serve more than 400 students in Columbia County. Around 100 students have been participating in virtual programming—primarily utilizing interactive Zoom sessions for Dream Academy and prerecorded sessions combined with live tutoring for 21st CCLCs.

“Families have issues with internet connectivity, so the amount of interventions has decreased due to that,” explained Kelley. The Collaborative addressed this challenge by having Dream Academy counselors hand deliver learning packets, including arts and crafts supplies and activities—such as DIY slime-making kits accompanied by a Zoom tutorial.

“We’re trying to engage students in creative ways while they’re home, and we’re trying to help families be consistent in their learning,” said Kelley. “Parents have told us it’s a lifesaver because their kids are learning more—and they feel better emotionally because they have an outlet. The physical activities from Georgia Shape also help get anxiety out.”

Jones said Kiana enjoyed a COVID-19 time capsule project. “She was able to put her thoughts and feelings about this quarantine and the coronavirus down on paper,” said Jones, who noted that Kiana’s teacher has seen so much growth since she joined Dream Academy. “Last year her reading level was at the end of kindergarten, which affected her ability in math with word problems. They thought she would be at risk of failing. Now, not only is Kiana ready for fourth grade—but she earned A’s in reading and math.”

Faye Story said her grandson, Jacob, requested to attend Dream Academy. “I didn’t think he was serious about it at first,” Story said. “Not too many children actually want to go from one school to another. But it has made a big difference for him—and I’m truly blessed. They help him with his schoolwork. I didn’t finish school, so that helps a lot. Dream Academy is an awesome place for kids.”

The Collaborative is planning to offer more extensive online programming for the county’s children during the summer months to provide a much-needed outlet for families and to ensure that students are prepared for school this fall.

“The more you do something, the more ideas come along,” said Downer. “It’s important to not get discouraged when progress seems like it’s moving slow. That’s part of this process. It’s uncertain. At least if you’re doing something, if you’re available to the students—perhaps if just one comes online—you’re making a difference in that one child’s life during this time.”


Krystin Dean
GaFCP Communications Specialist

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Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) is a public-private partnership created by the State of Georgia and investors from the private sector to assist communities in addressing the serious challenges facing children and families. GaFCP also serves as a resource to state agencies across Georgia that work to improve the conditions of children and families. Georgia KIDS COUNT provides policymakers and citizens with current data they need to make informed decisions regarding priorities, services, and resources that impact Georgia’s children, youth, families, and communities.