For thousands of local families, in the new school year, the stress of finding child care and an appropriate learning environment for their children has been overwhelming.

To support local schools and students with their recent remote launch, United Way of Santa Barbara County (UWSBC) and its community partners have created the Learning & Enrichment Centers Collaborative.

The collaborative is a broad child care and learning/enrichment model that involves dozens of partner schools and youth-serving agencies, and local leaders in philanthropy. It provides support for Santa Barbara County children and families during this time of distance learning.

This new and expanded Learning & Enrichment Center model was made in response to several unmet needs and service gaps that have become apparent during school closures due to COVID-19.

Discussions included school districts and youth-serving agencies, as well as stakeholders of United Way’s Emergency Child Care Initiative and signature educational programs, Fun in the Sun and United for Literacy programs.

Among the identified needs addressed by the Learning & Enrichment Centers are: supporting children and families through access to technology and internet; adult supervision and learning support; social/emotional skill development; access to food; and enrichment/exercise activity.

 “It is clear that there are some children and families for whom remote learning will just not work,” said Jon Clark, president of the James S. Bower Foundation, which has provided lead support to the collaborative. “We think the learning centers are an essential part of making sure these students have the access and support they need to succeed.”

To alleviate some of the stress of distance learning, UWSBC is working with existing child-care providers and youth-serving agencies to increase capacity at their facilities to provide care and educational support that will better help students with distance learning.

To date, UWSBC has secured $645,000 for the learning centers. With these funds, United Way has created some 445 spaces for 12 weeks (three months/fall semester) in partnership with six school districts (Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Goleta, Hope, Guadalupe, Santa Maria Bonita) and nine nonprofit organizations. More spaces are in development.

Students will be selected by a district referral process developed by United Way following the targeted student priority list.

Due to overwhelming need, current efforts are being targeted to serve about 750-1,000 of the most vulnerable children/students from three high-need target populations: foster and homeless youth, students who qualify for free and reduced meals, and children of essential workers.

“The Learning & Enrichment Centers provide much-needed support to help students, families, and educators be more successful through distance learning,” said Steve Ortiz, president/CEO of United Way.

“One of our school partners shared that, over the spring semester, one student, just 8 years old, was responsible for ensuring that her younger siblings were completing their virtual learning, in addition to her own classwork,” he said. “She was so overwhelmed managing this that she was not logging in for her own classes. Unfortunately, this circumstance is not unique.”

“Vulnerable Carpinteria families have been marginalized during remote learning due to the digital divide, unreliable internet connectivity, and lack of child care during school closures,” said Diana Rigby, superintendent of Carpinteria Unified School District.

“Our partnership with United Way to provide scholarships for students in need to attend learning centers at Carpinteria Girls Inc and Boys & Girls Club is making a significant impact on the remote learning gap,” she said. “We are grateful for such critical support for our most vulnerable students and their families during this crisis.”

Youth serving agencies receiving scholarship funding from the Learning & Enrichment Center Collaborative include: Boys & Girls Clubs of Mid Central Coast, Channel Islands YMCA, Girls Inc. of Carpinteria, Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, Good Samaritan Shelter, Isla Vista Youth Project, Police Activities League, Santa Maria YMCA, and United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County.

The Learning & Enrichment Centers Collaborative is supported by the Ann Jackson Foundation, Covid-19 Joint Response Effort, Hutton Parker Foundation, James S. Bower Foundation, Linked Foundation, Natalie Orfalea Foundation with Lou Buglioli, Sergey Brin Family Foundation, The Towbes Foundation, United Way of Santa Barbara County, and Yardi.