A coalition of leaders and students from the Associated Colleges of St. Lawrence Valley have teamed up to form The St. Lawrence Buddy Project, a new way to provide emotional and academic support to K-12 students and families as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
St. Lawrence University and SUNY Potsdam are piloting virtual homework and mentoring support by pairing college volunteers with local youth. St. Lawrence University students are also creating character development videos for students at Colton-Pierrepont Central School.
“We’re hoping this type of program is not just for the pandemic. There is value in it even after,” said Mary Wills, director of The People Project and a retired Ogdensburg teacher. Wills spearheaded the coalition for The People Project, a union-led initiative combining the energy of unions, businesses, educators, company leaders and civic groups to improve the lives of residents in St. Lawrence County. The People Project encompasses 18 K-12 public school districts in St. Lawrence County and includes BOCES.
The Buddy Project is a collaboration between St. Lawrence University, SUNY Canton, SUNY Potsdam and the St. Lawrence Youth Bureau, with support from New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. The college students participating in the program are trained in confidentiality, appropriate interactions and safety.
A steering committee is led by Ashlee Downing-Duke, associate director of student activities and leadership at St. Lawrence University; Julie Johnson, assistant director of the SUNY Potsdam Center for School Partnerships and Teacher Certification; and Dr. Sarah Solley, assistant professor of elementary education at SUNY Potsdam. With the support of the St. Lawrence County Youth Bureau, the committee is in the planning phases to provide family support through monthly meetings and social media discussion forums.
“Parents have become pseudo-teachers. They have had to balance work, home, and 'zoom-schooling' in addition to the emotional and financial stress caused by the pandemic to begin with,” Solley said. “Teachers had to change their teaching styles and practices overnight and students had to learn a whole new set of rules and routines. This was also true at the college level too. Our students wanted more opportunities to work with children throughout St. Lawrence County. Each member of our committee knew that we needed to provide support for our North Country families.”
Initial conversations with the local colleges surrounding The Buddy Project focused on pairing up college students with K-12 students as social-emotional buddies, Wills said.
“We were concerned about the struggles kids were going through,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, local college programs offered opportunities for their students to earn credit hours in various practicum and work-study placements in North Country school districts. However, the pandemic created challenges for these traditional partnerships. Although creative solutions were developed to support students virtually, the experiences were not the same.
“We had college students who wanted in-person field experience, without anywhere to go,” Wills said.
The Buddy Project committee chairs surveyed the needs of local students, families, and school district teachers. Results showed there were needs for student tutoring and homework support, mentorship, family support groups and reduced screen time activities. The need to reduce student screen time resulted in Project in a Box. Now in the planning phase, the project will involve creating boxes to send to homes, with themes revolving around arts and crafts, STEM, cooking and more.
“We are looking for funding for this phase,” said Wills.
Johnson said educators are in accord that the learning gaps teachers, administrators and families saw and are still seeing are real and the impacts of the pandemic on learning are still unknown. Her outreach indicated strong support for a pilot program to pair up college students with K-12 students based on their content area and student need.
“The response was clear and we are looking at pairing up buddies before the end of March,” Johnson said. “Our hope is that this will sustain beyond our current situation for years to come.”