By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted elementary students across the country.
When schools were forced to abruptly close their doors in spring 2020, teachers and administrators had to adjust on the fly. They quickly transitioned to remote education, knowing that even their best efforts to teach children online may not be good enough.
One year later, COVID-related learning loss remains a concern. On top of the increased stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, many students faced additional challenges, whether it’s food insecurity or a lack of access to high-speed internet and other resources.
“We know that COVID impacted a lot of kids in our community,” said Amy Nebesniak, an associate math professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “Even though a majority of the kids were able to attend school in person this year, the pandemic still affected them in numerous ways.”
Nebesniak, who also serves as director of the PAWS University program at UNK, doesn’t want to see these students fall too far behind. Neither do UNK administrators.
That’s why they worked together to develop a new program that provides summer learning opportunities for students who are academically at-risk.
A direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the PAWS University Prep Academy is a four-week program that focuses on building foundational skills in areas such as math, reading, science and social studies.
Although it’s an extension of the existing PAWS University curriculum-based summer camps offered on campus, the Prep Academy serves a specific group of students. Participants were recommended by Kearney Public Schools teachers and principals based on their individual needs.
A total of 90 students – 15 kindergartners and 75 first through sixth graders – were selected for the academy, which was offered at no cost to families. Most of the students attend Bryant, Central, Emerson and Northeast elementary schools – all Title I schools that qualify for federal funding supporting students from low-income households.
Prep Academy students met for 2 1/2 hours each weekday, with kindergartners learning at UNK’s Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center and older students gathering inside Discovery Hall, a state-of-the-art STEM facility that opened last fall.
Each week’s lessons centered around a specific theme – Earth, fire, water and wind – and included on-campus field trips to locations such as the Kearney Canal spillway, greenhouse and planetarium, as well as science experiments and other hands-on activities.
“Everything they’re doing is engaging,” said Nebesniak. “There are lots of hands-on activities and we’re able to really connect with campus.”
The Prep Academy wasn’t designed to feel like summer school. Although the goal is the same – they want students to be more prepared and successful when classes resume in August – there’s definitely an emphasis on having fun.
“That’s what you want. You want them to have fun while they’re learning,” said Kris Kampovitz, the academy’s associate director.
Kampovitz worked at KPS for 26 years before recently joining the staff at Educational Service Unit 10 in Kearney. She was a remote learning teacher for first and second graders last academic year, so she definitely understands the benefits the Prep Academy provides.
“By keeping students engaged in an academic setting, we’re giving them a jump-start heading into the fall,” Kampovitz said. “They’re still learning. They’re still active. Their brains are still thinking about all the things they did in school.”
Kampovitz and Nebesniak hand-picked eight certified elementary teachers to lead Prep Academy lessons. One recent UNK graduate and five current undergraduate students served as paraeducators, giving them extra experience in the field.
Nebesniak called her staff “the most amazing teachers ever.”
“They’ve been doing outstanding things with the kids,” she said.
Beyond the educational gains, the Prep Academy serves another important purpose. It’s a chance to get students on the UNK campus at a young age and start a conversation about their future.
“A lot of these kids are first-generation, and we want them to know they belong on a college campus,” Nebesniak said. “It’s not a scary place. It’s somewhere they can be successful.”
The PAWS University Prep Academy was supported by funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal spending package passed by Congress to provide assistance for Americans impacted by the pandemic.
Although the inaugural academy just ended Friday, Nebesniak is already thinking about ways to keep the program going.
“We’re hoping to find some other funding so we can do this every year, because I think it’s a huge benefit to the kids in our community,” she said.