EGREMONT — “I don’t learn stuff — I do stuff.”
That’s how third grader Ivanna Aguilar described her first day at Community Learning in the Berkshires, a new program in South County that seeks to take remote learning to “the outdoor classroom.”
Fearing a pandemic-impacted school year could disadvantage families without stable internet access, or without a caregiver who can stay home to supervise remote learning, local nonprofits partnered with two local school districts in an effort to fill those gaps.
Community Learning in the Berkshires, or CLuB, operates two sites where children participate in their school’s remote learning program under the supervision of trained educators and child care providers. Organizers say CLuB allows working families to remain in the workforce while providing school-aged children with social and emotional learning experiences that can be tough to get at home.
“Our program is for those 20 to 25 percent of kids who do not have a dedicated adult at home and families making difficult choices right now about pulling a health care worker out of a pandemic or pulling a teacher out of work when we desperately need them,” said Maria Rundle, executive director of Flying Cloud Institute, a Great Barrington-based education nonprofit.
Another draw? It’s all outdoors.
“I’d rather get them outside and learning to live,” said Matt Gasperini, of South Egremont, the uncle of an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old in the program.
“We’re not that worried about school work,” said Gasperini, who took “a couple months off work” to help with remote learning in the spring. “We’ll help them at home.”
Outdoor learning is “not completely as wild as it may sound,” Rundle said, noting countries like Denmark rely strongly on open-air education, which was also used following the 1918 flu pandemic. Flying Deer Nature Center also operates a yearlong outdoor kindergarten.
“To be outdoors with each other, to be playing, to be making art and sculptures and engineering, to be working on machines and pulleys, to be creating forts and artwork together, to be play acting and doing theater — these are all really crucial experiences in learning that our kids need right now,” Rundle said.
“To my mind, it’s strange that we don’t do more of it,” said Will Conklin, Greenagers’ executive director, of outdoor learning. “The outdoor classroom is an incredible space.”
CLuB is already collecting cold-weather gear and setting up outdoor heaters, and there are indoor spaces for shelter where social distancing is possible.
CLuB started as the brain child of Ilana Steinhauer, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires, who wanted to ensure families, particularly in immigrant communities, didn’t fall behind in a pandemic-altered school year.
Steinhauer reached out to other nonprofits, and soon, Flying Cloud Institute, Greenagers, Berkshire South Regional Community Center and Flying Deer Nature Center were all on board.
“In a time when we’re talking about creating equity and focusing on kids who fall through the cracks and ensuring people have a safe place to be, it’s imperative that the community comes together to provide this space,” Steinhauer said.
“We knew there was an issue in this community where people had kids and they didn’t know what to do with them,” said Aretha Whitehead, a Greenagers instructor. “It basically was an easy call to action for us.”
The two sites are at Greenagers’ April Hill farm in South Egremont and Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington, and students are split into cohort groups of 10-12 to ensure safety.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said CLuB has been “received very well” across the state, including by the Department of Early and Secondary Education.
“Where better can you have natural social distancing than in the Berkshires?” he said. “I found it to be a very creative, out-of-the box thinking, which is what we desperately needed at this time.”
The Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills districts have each endorsed CLuB, and school administrators identify students they believe would be a good fit for the program. Those children can attend free of cost, while others attend for $20 a day.
Charles Miller, principal of Undermountain Elementary School in Sheffield, said administrators foresaw some families would struggle to find child care in the hybrid learning model. He said he was grateful CLuB was providing a solution while taking into account safety and affordability.
“We wanted to make this something that was equitable and available to any family that might have hardship or struggle with the child care piece,” Miller said. “And an added benefit was that it was going to be educationally geared.”
Much of CLuB’s funding will come through donations. Rundle said CLuB expects to operate at a cost of $4,000-$4,500 per student this year. That’s “a bargain” compared to for-profit programs, said Rundle, who estimated market rate to be above $10,000 for a similar program.
CLuB has received $100,000 from the Hughes Foundation and over $30,000 from individual donors, Rundle said. It’s currently serving 120 students at its two sites but is looking at opening a third site to serve an additional 40 children.
Still more nonprofits may be involved in providing programming or support, including Berkshire Pulse, Multicultural Bridge, Southern Berkshire Rural Health Network, John Dewey Academy and Berkshire Music School. They’ll offer instruction in areas like dance, music and language.
“This collaboration has been possible because these organizations have been in relationship with each other and the local school districts for decades,” Rundle said, noting many nonprofits might typically provide after-school programming in most school years. “This is a way for those organizations to remain vital and be of service exactly when the community needs them the most.”
This story has been updated to correct the cost of attendance for the program.