College of Education professor joins with local literacy groups to deliver tablets to students in need

Assistant Professor Shea Kerkhoff helped secure PBS Kids Playtime Pads for students in north St. Louis to help bridge the digital divide and fight summer slide.
Burk Krohe | Mon Jun 29, 2020
Walbridge STEAM Academy

Students from Walbridge STEAM Academy in north St. Louis will receive 55 PBS Kids Playtime Pads thanks to fundraising efforts from a local literacy collaborative. Members of the collaborative, including Assistant Professor Shea Kerkhoff, hope the tablets will help bridge St. Louis’ digital divide and help students fight against summer slide. (Photo courtesy of Walbridge STEAM Academy)

When Lisa Greening heard Sam Bommarito reminisce fondly about his time at Walbridge STEAM Academy, she knew she wanted to do something for the school’s pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.

Greening, the project manager of Turn the Page STL, reached out to others doing work on local literacy and equity issues in the St. Louis region, including Shea Kerkhoff, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a board member for the Missouri Literacy Association.

On top of dealing with difficulties transitioning to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the students of the north St. Louis school were also mourning the passing away of a beloved pre-k teacher’s aide. Bommarito’s memories of Walbridge compelled Kerkhoff and others to act.

Through personal donations and connections, the individuals from a variety of local literacy organizations funded 55 PBS Kids Playtime Pads for the students at Walbridge.

“There was this personal connection and fondness for the school,” Kerkhoff said. “Then there was this heartbreak, and we wanted to send a beacon of hope and something positive.”

Kelly Byrd also brought a personal connection to the initiative. She is a speech language pathologist at Walbridge and two other north St. Louis schools and is the president of Love for Literacy.

One glaring issue they are trying to address is the digital divide in St. Louis, where 44 percent of residents who live north of Delmar Boulevard do not have internet access. The pandemic and move to online classes made the issue even more pressing for students at schools such as Walbridge who often lack access to the internet and technology needed for learning at home.

“The kiddos at those schools are who I’m always thinking about when we’re talking about summer learning and trying to close the digital divide,” Byrd said.

Greening heard the same concerns from the head of A Child’s Heart Early Childhood Center, who she had worked with in the past.

“Ten of her kids were at home because of COVID,” Greening recalled. “She was so worried about those kids falling behind.”

Wanting to help, she called Alex Stallings, the director of early learning at the Nine Network of Public Media. The network is St. Louis’ PBS affiliate, and Greening knew PBS produced Playtime Pads, interactive tablets designed for young children.

The Nine Network agreed to give the tablets to Greening at cost ­– a significant savings from the $80 retail price. She was able to personally purchase 10 for Child’s Heart.

With a source of tablets in place, Kerkhoff started fundraising for Walbridge. She donated personal funds and also received a generous donation from Marvin Berkowitz, the Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor in Character Education at UMSL. The combined funds secured 55 Playtime Pads.

The tablets are suited perfectly for pre-k and kindergarten students because they come loaded with a variety of educational games and videos and don’t require an internet connection. Kerkhoff noted that resources like the tablets, which can keep younger kids engaged during the summer, are especially important right now.

Summer slide – a loss of academic achievement, knowledge and skills over the long break – is an issue with all students, but it can be particularly detrimental to early childhood learners. With online learning beginning in March for most area schools, the loss will likely be more pronounced.

“If there isn’t an intervention, then summer slide is compounding,” Kerkhoff said. “If you have a 4-year-old and that compounds and compounds every summer until they are a high school senior, that’s a big opportunity gap.”

They hope the Playtime Pads will reduce that gap, but there’s no telling what will happen when the school year starts.

“That’s hard to say because this is not anything that we’ve ever experienced before,” Byrd said. “We know that there are certainly going to be difficulties when we come back, but how those things are addressed, how that all plays out is really hard to say. Being able to offer these kids some support, that’s all we can do until that initial time.”

In the meantime, the group is continuing to do what it can and expanding its efforts beyond Walbridge.

Since their initial fundraising, they have received another donation for the purchase of 285 Playtime Pads, 100 of which will go to children who are part of the Atlas At-Home Learning Kit program in St. Louis. The other 185 will go to children in early childhood centers in Normandy, Missouri, and will be distributed by S.T.A.R. Early Childcare Providers. The Dana Brown Charitable Trust is also set to provide 100 Playtime Pads to the Atlas program in July.

“This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning,” Kerkhoff said. “That’s one of the reasons we want to get the word out there and share some good news.”

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