Like many New York City charter schools, Brooklyn’s Ascend network started off the year fully remote. But just a few months in, it became clear: Remote learning wasn’t working for certain students.

Attendance dipped, and teachers struggled to reach students at the network’s K-12 schools. Many of the children come from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, and some live in vulnerable housing situations. They needed a safe, supervised place for effective virtual schooling.

“We have students in transitional home situations, and we have students who really needed an optimal learning space,” said Ania-Lisa Etienne, a teacher at Brownsville Ascend Middle School, one of the charter’s 15 schools.

School leaders heard the feedback from teachers like Etienne, and by November decided to change tracks.

They transformed some of their Brownsville classrooms into learning pods — making space on campus for small groups of students to attend virtual school with the help of a learning proctor or “pod leader” who supported them throughout the school day.

Some teachers volunteered to be pod leaders. Others were led by furloughed school food service workers, as well as paraprofessionals, who were hired and trained by an outside agency. Roughly 380 of the network’s 5,000 students had enrolled in 15 learning pods across its Brooklyn campuses, as of March.

“We just need kids to be in class,” said Rachael Sheridan, another Brownsville Ascend Middle School teacher. “If they’re not in class, we can’t even do the work we’re trying to do.”

From the start, learning pods raised questions around equity. Small private pods, many gathering in homes, began popping up across the country, with some as pricey as $13,000 per semester.

These kinds of pods often excluded lower-income families, and didn’t always feel inclusive to families of children with disabilities who might need special support. Many education observers worried that these self-created groups would widen already existing educational disparities in a year defined by disrupted, and often, less instructional time for most children.

But the pod concept has expanded beyond the home. In an effort to even the playing field, some schools, churches and community-based organizations have been offering students of all income levels this kind of in-person, small-group option. Many experts say the pod model — with the individualized attention it provides — can be helpful to the most vulnerable students.

Read the full article about learning pods by Lauren Constantino at Chalkbeat.