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San Luis Coastal's learning pods help students to rebound after struggling with distance learning

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A few months into the second semester of the 2021 school year, San Luis Obispo High School student Alex Rayas was, like so many students, completely floundering. He was quite literally failing all of his classes.

Rayas had never struggled with school much before the COVID-19 pandemic, but virtual learning just didn't click for him. As a freshman, he'd never even set foot on SLO High School's campus when classes started online in the fall. He didn't know many of his classmates and had never actually met any of his teachers.

He found it nearly impossible to focus on class and assignments at home, with his bed and video games constantly within reach.

"It just wasn't engaging," Rayas said.

Then in February, Rayas' dad enrolled him in one of SLO High's learning pods, small in-person instructional support groups that have gained popularity throughout the pandemic as an alternative to distance learning. The groups consist of around 10 to 15 students who meet with a single "pod leader" in person every day, where they have time to work on assignments and access to further instruction when needed.

For Rayas, the improvement was almost immediate. He finally felt like—despite the masks and physical distancing—he was in a semi-normal classroom environment where he could focus on his schoolwork. Tackling it all didn't seem so daunting with his pod leader, John Franklin, a retired SLO High teacher and beloved substitute, by his side. Now, just a few months after joining the pod, Rayas' grades have jumped from straight F's to all A's and a C.

"It's nice," he told New Times. "I haven't seen my grades like that in a while."

That's a common theme among pod students, according to Lara Storm, principal of Monarch Grove Elementary School on special assignment and head of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District's pod program.

Storm said roughly 730 students in San Luis Coastal have participated in pods so far this school year, but without academic data for this semester available, it's hard to measure the true impacts of the program. Anecdotally, she said pods are considered a huge success.

"They've really been able to get grades up quickly through pods," Storm said.

Pods started in the winter as a way to offer an alternative to the students most in need of help. When the district was still fully virtual, Storm said there were a lot of kids who just couldn't handle online learning and their grades were "not pretty." School staff found that the only thing that made a real difference to those kids was getting them back in person.

But teachers were too busy with online classes and assignments to be responsible for small groups of in-person students.

"So we needed to find a way to support them that wasn't our classroom teachers," Storm said.

The district has since hired around 60 pod leaders, who help ensure that students are staying focused in school and getting assignments turned in. There aren't strict pod eligibility requirements in the San Luis Coastal district, but Storm said teachers and other school staff recommend pods for kids who are regularly skipping class and missing assignments, failing, or have social-emotional needs.

Ingrid Unemar Oest started working as a pod leader at SLO High in February. She worked as a college professor for years, but when she moved to the U.S. from Sweden around eight years ago, she decided to take a few years off to be with her two kids. Her own kids have been attending school online since March 2020, and she's witnessed first-hand how tough it can be for kids to stay motivated and on task at home.

"When you're sitting at home, there are so many things that can be distracting to you," Unemar Oest told New Times.

In her pod on April 15, around seven or eight of Unemar Oest's students were spread out and working on Chromebooks in a mostly empty classroom at SLO High. Most are freshman, and they were working on everything from chemistry and reading Romeo and Juliet to raising live chicks for an agriculture class.

The subjects they're expected to work on at home alone are complicated, Unemar Oest said, and she's not surprised that so many kids are falling behind. She's just glad to see that her pod is turning things around.

"I'm really proud of them," she said.

Fast fact

• In celebration of Arbor Day, Grover Beach City Council adopted a proclamation on April 12 recognizing the importance of planting trees. As part of this effort, Grover Beach plans to plant 60 trees to honor the city's recent 60th anniversary. Residents can also participate in the #GroverBeachArborDay challenge through the end of April by posting a photo of themselves on social media with a newly planted tree or hugging old ones. Participants could win a goodie bag, water bottle, or tote bag. Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to strokes@newtimesslo.com.

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