James and instructor Nadia Razavi at the LSC. PHOTO COURTESY OF HANNAH RICHARDSON

Learning Support Center

Support for families, students and schools

Working parents—essential workers and those working from home—really have shouldered the brunt of challenges brought on by the coronavirus.

“For parents that are trying to home school and maybe also working from home, it’s so difficult,” Robbeye Samardich, office manager with Hammond Property Management, said. It is like putting together a puzzle—fitting a weekly changing school schedule into a predetermined work schedule.

Big Sky handled this the same way it handled the rest of the coronavirus complications, though—as a community.

Discovery Academy, Big Sky Resort, Big Sky Community Organization and others started talking to see what support could be offered to families. With the Big Sky School District (BSSD) divided into two cohorts—each participating in half distanced and half in-person learning—it left students without a school environment to attend for five days within a two-week period. The different organizations knew they could not just construct a brand-new school to put these kids in on their distanced days.

“But we could address a very specific niche, K-5 grade students, who we realized need the most childcare and supervision during the work day for parents and we really wanted to support working families because those that are going to work are kind of stuck in this impossible situation of educating their child and working,” Hannah Richardson, community outreach director with Discovery, said.

The result was securing a location at Geyser Whitewater Expeditions, putting together a staff of three teachers and opening the Learning Support Center (LSC) to support working families without a childcare solution.

Within 24 hours, 25 families signed up and 29 students were registered for the first week beginning Sept. 14. The cap is currently at 40, but Richardson expects 50 could be accommodated. With three teachers, the student to teacher ratio could be either eight or ten to one. Richardson expects the program to be full come October.

The LSC is essentially a mix between childcare and tutoring for grades K-5. Three instructors—Samantha Riley, who has been employed by both Discovery and BSSD, Richard Sandza, Camp Big Sky director who will begin in October, and Nadia Razavi new Discovery hire—are there to support students with schoolwork assigned by Ophir Elementary School teachers. Students bring their materials to Geyser Whitewater from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. on Friday and receive support from the LSC staff.

“We’re just supporting the school, not reinventing anything,” Riley, who was prepared to have a week off before flying to Maryland to attend a friend’s wedding, said. Instead, she dove into the LSC and took an interview call about the program on her way to the airport.

During the first week, Riley and Razavi tried to keep students in the same cohorts at the same tables, donated by Buck’s T4 Lodge. Mask wearing followed restaurant rules—students were allowed to take their masks off at their tables, but if working in small groups or sharing a computer, were asked to put them on.

What became obvious was that students had different schedules. Part of Riley’s past weekend involved making a master schedule with all students’ individual schedules incorporated to help facilitate self-sufficiency in the students and organization with the teachers. “Having the schedules clear and concise will help immensely,” she said.

Riley worked with English Language Learners (ELL) in the BSSD and continues to do so at the LSC. Her goal is to help ELL students with their classwork and continue with their English-language education.

Richardson mentioned a large portion of the students are in the K-3 range, many at the kindergarten age. Samardich has a preschool aged child attending Morningstar Learning Center, but her oldest is in second grade and goes to the ‘Geyser School,’ as the family calls it, when their schedule determines distanced learning.

“Parker knows everybody there. It felt good to be able to send her somewhere that wasn’t just a babysitting place,” Samardich said. Richardson echoed this bonus—the teachers in the program are well-known faces to many kids in the area.

In addition to highlighting the difficulties of a changing school system, the coronavirus brought attention to gaps between social and economic classes. Riley understands BSSD’s decision to go half-and-half and believes they did the right thing, but also understands children’s family lives are not all the same. “I think it’s to help the parents but it’s promoting equitable education,” Riley said about the LSC.

Samardich and her husband both need to work to support their family. When she first heard of the LSC, she was worried the family was not going to be able to afford it. As it turned out, the program costs $200 per month, which she broke down to costing $50 per week and her daughter often goes three times each week.

“It’s dirt cheap and the way that they can do that is that they found some funding in some way,” Samardich said.

Discovery had grant money from the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation to help with the initial startup. Grants from Big Sky Relief and a Student-Aged Child Care Grant were applied for with the hope that this money will fund the program through December. Registration is still open, and those interested may reach out to Richardson at hannahr@bigskydiscoveryacademy.org.

The LSC is working on incorporating lunch options. Roxy’s Market is willing to collaborate with the program to help in this area.

“This is a serious need and we were really stoked it all came together,” Richardson said.

“I can’t say enough how grateful we are,” Samardich said.


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