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USC’s college access program helps its students transition to distance learning

Through laptops, tablets and instruction from savvy teachers, the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative strives to keep its local scholars engaged and educated during this unprecedented period.

Antoinette Pippin

Antoinette Pippin teaches a Neighborhood Academic Initiative class before online classes were put in place. (USC Photo/David Sprague)

When Los Angeles Unified School District students reach their final day of classes on June 12, it will mark an end to one of the most challenging years in the history of education.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district closed its campuses and went online starting March 13. Students were in the middle of their spring semester, and many weren’t equipped for the swift shift to distance learning.

But the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative sprang into action, ensuring the program’s scholars had the tools they needed to learn remotely. A generous donation by program benefactors Leslie and William McMorrow allowed NAI to boost its ability to loan out laptops and tablets. The program distributed laptops to all USC NAI senior scholars to allow them to finish their high school academic careers and the college application process. They also distributed devices to some of the program’s families in need.

NAI instructors come up with alternative strategies for video classes

The challenge was not only in procuring laptops and tablets but also in making sure that all USC NAI scholars were connected and had the necessary resources to succeed through distance learning. USC NAI math and science instructor Antoinette Pippin met that challenge head on with her class of sixth graders.

Engaging students in a classroom is difficult enough. Pippin’s methods resonate and keep her students captivated during hourlong Zoom sessions.

“Each session starts off with a post from the previous session. It keeps them thinking. It keeps them on their toes,” she said. “I’ll also post polls and surveys in the session from time to time, just to make sure they are paying attention.”

That’s a strategy that has endeared Pippin to many students who have taken her USC NAI Saturday Academy and Foshay Learning Center courses.

“Antoinette’s sixth-grade class at Foshay Learning Center was already primed through previous innovative thinking activities, exercises and scholarly thinking to almost seamlessly make the transition to an online platform,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, USC associate senior vice president for K-12 partnerships. “She pushes her scholars to think creatively and to push themselves to come up with solutions in their math and science classes. They did not want to miss out on what’s next.”

Distance learning provides unexpected opportunities for connection

One of the keys to her strong engagement is a pivot that didn’t happen intentionally. Expecting issues with online platforms, Pippin would log into classes early with the goal of troubleshooting technical problems. Instead, she discovered her students also were logging in early — just to talk.

I’m blessed to have a teacher who makes us work hard and looks out for us.

Mia Solares

That opened the door to conversations that rarely revolved around academics. The unofficial therapy sessions have allowed her students to share their challenges with remote learning before class. “I tear up just thinking about them,” Pippin said.

Sixth-grade scholar Richard Manzares said the adjustment to online classes was tough.

“Mentally, it has been challenging,” he said. “It’s different, because you miss your friends.”

In the end — whether the lesson plans cover math or thermodynamics — there is no substitute for caring. Pippin connects with her students by focusing on their well-being as well as their schooling. Mia Solares, another NAI sixth-grade scholar, appreciates Pippin’s extra effort.

“The experience of having to learn at home has been good because I’m blessed to have a teacher who makes us work hard and looks out for us,” Solares said.

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USC’s college access program helps its students transition to distance learning

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