CLARION - The "hustle and bustle" has returned to the Community Learning Workshop at 505 Main Street in Clarion as the center has re-opened its doors to face-to-face tutoring and programs, a change that could be vitally important as local schools are mired in face masking and vaccine debates.
When Clarion University pivoted to remote instruction during March 2020, the Community Learning Workshop CLW -- followed suit. Administered on a volunteer basis by two university faculty members and staffed by a small cadre of university students, the CLW remained remote through the entire 2020-2021 academic year. The office functioned as an administrative workspace and "command center" for virtual services.
The CLW took a step toward "back to somewhat normal" Sept. 13.
"We are looking forward to it (the return to in-person services). We're looking forward to having children back. That's really the energy of the place, the university students working with community children," said Dr. Leah Chambers, an English professor at Clarion University and co-director of the CLW.
This fall, the center is open 3:15 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Walk-ins are welcome and no appointments are necessary. Services and programs are free.
Despite welcoming the community back on the premises for the first time in almost a year-and-a-half, the reopening occurred with little fanfare. The decision was made to keep things low-key; any celebration deemed unnecessary because Chambers and Dr. Richard Lane, also an English professor at Clarion University and CLW co-director, believed many in the community were already aware of the workshop's "in-person return."
Remarked Lane, "We just reopened (sans celebration or ceremony). We're kind of established and people know us. They've been emailing and waiting for us to open. There has been a lot of cooperation with the schools, they've been supportive getting the word out to parents through our flyers and website."
"There wasn't time," quipped Chambers.
Indeed, the time prior to reopening was devoted to preparing the learning space, as opposed to planning a party.
Reported Chambers, "We spent time cleaning, organizing, trying to make a little more space in the front room so that we can distance students as much as we can. We put air cleaners in the front and back."
The CLW is, for the most part, following COVID-19 protocols consistent with those of Clarion University, including wearing masks when inside.
"We are requiring masks. We have masks available for families. We're working with a population that largely cannot get vaccinated right now and we want to keep everybody safe," noted Chambers.
Added Lane, "We've always had the kids wash their hands when they come. We've had those polices for a while. We're planning a bit of an increase in minding the cleanliness of what we're doing."
Though somewhat slow the first week, the initial lack of students "dropping in" for tutoring was not unexpected.
"It usually takes a couple of weeks for kids to start coming in. The first couple of weeks are always pretty slow. Of course, when you get that first nine-week report card, that increases the amount of people coming in by a lot," observed Lane. "We start off pretty slow at first, be we have a couple of projects our students (tutors from the university) can do to prepare for the kids."
Though providing services remotely was not ideal, the CLW adroitly pivoted to the virtual environment, seeing some benefit in so doing. Commented Chambers, "It definitely wasn't the same, we were not as busy. What was nice about virtual, it's been kind of a theme, is that we were able to reach students that were not usually reached.
"For example, we don't usually get anybody from Union (School District) or Rimersburg just because we're out of the way for those families. So one good thing about virtual was I think it increased access. Geographically we were able to reach different families."
So pleased with the reach offered by virtual instruction, the CLW plans to continuing offering tutoring remotely as it moves forward this year. "It (pivoting to remote instruction) forced us to expand, so we just kept it as part of the program," said Lane.
He elaborated, "You know, we don't have to meet during those hours (the CLW's hours of in-person operation). If there's a time when a child can meet and our tutor is available, the can meet virtually based on both their schedules. It could be a Saturday morning, it could be a Sunday night. We're not under the constraints of being open.'"
Another change precipitated by "going virtual" was less of a reliance on paper and the simplification of processes.
Chambers said, "We now have a Google registration form with a QR code. Families can just scan the QR code, go to the Google form, and register their children (for either in-person or online tutoring)."
Going on 10 years
Lane and Chambers founded the CLW after being awarded a $34,000 High Impact Practice grant in 2012, opening the center doors at 537 Main Street in fall of 2013. The grant supported operations for three years, after which Clarion University assumed responsibility for the center's overhead, including rent, utilities, and general office supplies. Otherwise, the CLW is reliant on donations and grants in order to provide books and other learning materials to community families and staging evening programing and events.
The CLW was briefly housed in the 800 Center before moving to its present location four years ago.
"We really wanted to have a place off of campus because we wanted it to be a true community space. That was important to us," noted Chambers.
Serving students in grades K-12 from Clarion and surrounding communities and school districts, the CLW offers tutoring in a variety of subjects. No-cost ACT and SAT prep is also available. Additionally, the CLW traditionally hosts several special events each semester, such as foreign language and American Sign Language workshops.
This year the CLW has teamed with the Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit to offer GED prep and literacy services to adults looking to advance their careers.
There is no shortage of ways in which the CLW might provide services or in the services it might provide.
"If people have needs, educational needs, and ideas for programs, we're happy to take suggestions. We invite suggestions," commented Chambers.
As Lane so succinctly put it, "People used to come in and say what do you do.' We always say, What do you need?'"