In Colorado, a Pandemic Pivot to Reach Spanish-Speaking Families


BOULDER, Colo. – Twelve-year-old Alexander Esquivel learned to code Python on his laptop and wire circuits for the motherboard of a robot on Zoom during the pandemic.

Alexander studies robotics at Casa de la Esperanza, a community providing on-site housing and services for low-income, Spanish-speaking families who work in agriculture along Colorado‘s Front Range. Casa de la Esperanza has a learning center with a computer lab, classrooms for tutoring and a robotics room in Longmont, Colorado. Overall, the initiative serves about 55 families; some live on-site and some, like Alexander’s, live elsewhere.

The pandemic threatened the community’s learning programs – as it did educational offerings across the country – when kids could not meet in-person after school. Yet strong connections helped staff at Casa de la Esperanza find new ways to meet the needs of families through Wi-Fi and computers, supplies delivered to homes and new virtual classes.

“We created a sense of community and a space that is open to them,” says Vanessa Arritola, a resource specialist and program manager at the Casa de la Esperanza Learning Center. “We are such a big part of their family and they are part of our family. We just couldn’t let that go.”

Before the pandemic, families at Casa de la Esperanza would use the computer lab or the center’s Wi-Fi to get online. Its learning center was a hub for after-school and summer activities like robotics and art, which receive funding through grants from community foundations. Staff members are funded by Boulder County Housing and Human Services.

When COVID-19 closed the learning center, staff lent out a handful of computers and helped families get Wi-Fi through a city of Longmont program that provides internet connections for low-income families. Most middle and high school students already had iPads through their school, but it took several weeks for elementary students to get the devices for online learning.

Even then, Arritola says, things weren’t easy.

The pandemic has exposed inequities in education and technology for low-income families across the United States, including in places like Casa de la Esperanza. Parents there struggled to help with online learning because they were working or because of the language barrier – or simply because they weren’t tech-savvy, Arritola says.

“It became a huge challenge to tutor the elementary kids because they don’t have an email address and a lot of them don’t read,” Arritola says, adding that staff and tutors at Casa de la Esperanza could not legally access the school district’s devices.

To help younger children keep up with school, Arritola and her staff relied on older siblings to assist, called parents on the phone or met outside the learning center at a distance to walk parents step by step through how to help their kids get online and log into virtual meetings for tutoring.

Patricia Hernández, who has lived with her family at Casa de la Esperanza for three years, says Arritola recently helped with the application for free Wi-Fi and an internet company set the router up in her home. She needs Wi-Fi for her 13-year old daughter, who is learning online at home two days a week.

The learning center hosted its first virtual class – art – last summer. Arritola and her staff gathered a month’s worth of supplies like scissors, glue and watercolor paints and dropped them off at families’ homes a week before the class started. Later, kids made papier-mache flowers for Day of the Dead in virtual art class.

The center’s robotics program, which started in 2007, is typically hands-on with a lot of human interaction, says Michael Lozano, a STEM educator at Casa de la Esperanza. Now, 20 elementary, middle and high school students meet virtually with mentors to learn concepts in programming and electrical and mechanical engineering. To make the virtual robotics classes more interactive, Lozano and Arritola dropped off materials like circuit boards and wires so students could use them in their homes.

“We want to provide education for our students so they don’t fall further behind as the pandemic continues,” says Lozano, who has taught at Casa de la Esperanza for 20 years.

Long-standing relationships with mentors who come from companies in the area like Seagate Technology, Ball Aerospace, IBM and Front Range Engineering have continued throughout the pandemic, and those companies help fund the robotics program. Arritola says the program is so strong because mentors have volunteered for five, eight or even 10 years.

The robotics program is also unique, she says, because at competitions their teams are often the only ones made up entirely of Latino students. Lozano says competition exposes students to new ideas and collaboration, something he’s eager to get back to after the pandemic.

“It really taught me how to be patient and work as a team,” says Alexander, the 12-year-old, of working with younger students in the program. Being online has its challenges, he admits, like when students are too shy to turn on their cameras. “Part of the fun is being there and talking to people,” he says of working in the robotics lab.

Arritola also is eager for a time when she can once again see families and kids in person each day. But she’s been surprised at kids’ enthusiasm for taking classes online with the learning center after a full day of online schooling.

“What I appreciate is the kids’ willingness to be part of this community,” Arritola says. “They never turned us down. They never turned us away.”

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