As kids shuffle between virtual and in-person classrooms, quarantine and masked PE, this patchwork school year has been a heroic feat by educators, caregivers, support staff, and most of all, students. But while everyone tries to manage screen time and school demands during a global pandemic, one group in Irvington raises a question not exactly top of mind: what about the fun, social parts of learning?
Learning Together was born from the idea that we cannot let children’s innate curiosity dull within the stressful confines of quarantine. And more importantly, we must tackle the learning gap head-on, in a communal manner, as children from different backgrounds navigate these new challenges with varying support systems and resources.
“It became clear during this past year that many families in our community were supplementing their kids’ education, while others were simply trying to navigate the insanity of the moment,” said Andy Rafal, founder of Learning Together. “We wanted to create a way for parents to access best-in-class educational opportunities that brought students and families together.”
Rather than focus on extra math and foundations, kids get a chance to explore cooking, language, and 3D printing through Learning Together’s courses. Reading Together,
Rafal’s community project that distributed reserved books to families weekly, came first when libraries closed in April. As buildings reopened, he and the group managing the program saw an opportunity to adapt and continue their mission with the network they built. They launched Learning Together in September, and its 15-person team of volunteers has reached over 650 kids through beatboxing, Dungeons & Dragons, yoga and mindfulness, and Minecraft.
The group offers free courses to any student in Irvington in two formats: clubs (drop-in, ongoing groups like their popular chess offering), and classes, which occur within a set time period. The programs are currently self-funded and made free for all by the parents and teachers involved in running the group. They’ve worked with the district and PTSA to spread the word and see how the community takes to the programming.
And while the students they serve are local, running a remote program has allowed the group to tap into teachers from anywhere. “Our teachers are located across the country but in almost all cases, have a story that links them back to families in Irvington,” says Rafal. “Many of them typically offer their services in elite NYC private schools.”
So what’s next for Learning Together as Westchester schools reopens? According to Rafal, the group has no plan to slow down with students back in classrooms. “As we look forward, we expect to run a combination of in-person programming, along with virtual, across a range of offerings.”