How Wyman’s TOP Program Found New Ways to Connect with Students during Covid-19
On a typical day, the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students in Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program (TOP) could be found gathered together in class discussing leadership skills, current events, and how they could help their community. On other days, they might be on a field trip doing volunteer work or just hanging out with their friends in the cafeteria.
In March 2020, these typical days abruptly ended. As the severity of the pandemic began to become clear, schools in the St. Louis region started navigating to remote learning, and students had to stay home. Field trips, classroom discussions, and even spending time with friends – all of which help foster growth and emotional health in children – were suddenly unsafe.
TOP, an evidence-based program funded by the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, serves about 500 sixth- through eighth-graders in the University City and Ferguson-Florissant school districts. The program’s goal is to help students strengthen social-emotional skills, develop a sense of purpose, avoid risky behaviors, and build healthy relationships and connections in the community. In some schools all students participate, and in others, students are referred into the program.
Throughout the school year, TOP students meet weekly during the school day for sessions that are built around three core elements: curriculum-based lessons, community service learning, and ongoing support from adult facilitators. While Wyman staff directly serve students in the St. Louis area, they also replicate TOP nationally by training and supporting facilitators in implementing the program with fidelity.
When COVID-19 sent everyone home, TOP facilitators knew they had to shift gears quickly. They pivoted to holding classes online and checking in on their community in St. Louis.
“Our emphasis from March to May (2020) was having contact with young people and making sure they were OK,” said Sarah Nace, Director of School Based Services at Wyman. Although they saw a drop in attendance, they knew students and their families were facing new challenges brought on by the pandemic. They called parents to check in and connect them to community resources and made sure students had what they needed.
Staying Connected Online
Summer 2020 gave TOP facilitators more time to plan for the next school year. They came up with engaging ways to use tools like Zoom and Google Classroom and built a resource base of team-building activities to draw from. Wyman staff in St. Louis also translated more than 40 curriculums into virtual programming, which they shared with TOP facilitators across the country.
As school districts purchased Chromebooks for students and set expectations about attending school online, TOP participants and their families became more comfortable with meeting virtually, and attendance climbed back up. As staff discovered more ways to connect remotely, it started to feel like the old TOP club.
“We tried to make things super fun and do things that made us laugh,” said Nace. “If we’re laughing, young people will be, too.” Some of the students’ favorite activities were playing online games, competing in virtual scavenger hunts and escape rooms, doing community service remotely, and sharing Friday Dubsmash dances on social media.
“For us, it was really fun to see them grow and see relationships bloom (virtually) and to get to see parents, siblings, pets, where they lived – things we didn’t get to see in person,” said Nace.
Throughout the time they held classes virtually, TOP facilitators checked in with students and each other to see what was working, what wasn’t, and share ideas. They sent out surveys, held student focus groups, and met monthly with student representatives. Nace said they really “leaned into” TOP students to better understand what was working and what wasn’t. “We heard that TOP is the ‘most fun class virtually,’ but we want to be back in person.”
Data from local and national TOP programs show that virtual programming was a success. According to Wyman, 94 percent of teens surveyed about the 2019-2020 school year felt that TOP facilitators cared about them, and 89 percent said they were able to make a positive difference in the lives of others through community service.
Working through Challenges Together
TOP students faced enormous challenges in 2020. Nace said many shared feelings of loss and helplessness. Some grieved loved ones they lost to COVID-19, others missed their friends, and many felt powerless to help solve the country’s biggest issues, including the effects of the pandemic and systemic racism.
TOP facilitators provided a space for students to share their concerns and discuss what they could do. “We helped them feel empowered and learn that they could change something even if they couldn’t change everything,” Nace said.
Despite the hardships they endured, the students at TOP continued to show up to class for themselves and their community. They made blankets and scarves to donate, designed cleats related to causes they cared about through the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats program, played Freerice to help feed families in need, and more.
“We saw people learn and grow and gain social-emotional skills,” said Nace. “Our young people are awesome and have great ideas and are really inspirational and deserve a lot of accolades.”