Local students at work at The David’s Harp Foundation’s distance learning hub at Moniker Warehouse. Photo courtesy of the foundation

When San Diego high schools closed in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers in our community became isolated from their classmates, school activities and support systems.

Students like Gabriel, a senior at San Diego High School, faced even greater struggles. After moving in with his aunt in March 2020, Gabriel was grateful for a roof over his head. However, distance learning was difficult without a space of his own to join in a virtual class, take a test or study. Because of the pandemic, Gabriel’s academics and well-being were even more at risk.

But Gabriel, who had never achieved higher than a 2.1 GPA, now has a 3.75 GPA. The difference: spending every day at The David’s Harp Foundation distance learning hub.

Last year, as we were dealing with the pandemic, we received a generous grant from Cox Communications of more than $60,000 for a distance learning hub at our East Village location in downtown San Diego to bring internet connectivity to at-risk and homeless students. In addition to the Cox grant, Moniker Warehouse donated its event venue, enabling us to develop an educational space based on what our students told us they needed, not what we thought they needed. 

Distance learning was new for us too. Our nonprofit was born in 2006 in a converted garage in Southeast San Diego, where neighborhood youth lacking support and motivation traded good grades for studio time to create music. Today, we are a diverse group of artists and educational support staff hosting a range of academic and art programs for hundreds of San Diego teens, including foster youth and those in the juvenile justice system. 

Those students were the hardest hit when school campuses closed due to the pandemic. By late spring 2020, we found that 91 percent of the students we worked with weren’t accessing their school’s distance learning curriculum. Our staff could have huddled privately to develop a plan we thought would get them engaged with school, but instead, we got the students’ feedback and created something that met their needs. 

As we spoke with our students about why they weren’t logging onto their Zoom classrooms every day, we heard one thing loud and clear: a sense of community, academic accountability and creative connection were important to their learning. Olivia, a David’s Harp program participant, said it best: “Music is my everything, and the studio is my community. It’s my inspiration, my therapy, it’s LIFE.”

In response, last summer, we got right to work creating the ideal environment for online classes and a much-needed creative and social outlet. A partnership with college preparation nonprofit Reality Changers and support from the Claire Rose Foundation gave us the boost we needed to make the distance learning hub a reality. 

Since the 2020 fall semester, the distance learning hub has provided a COVID-safe, in-person distance learning environment in the 4,000-square-foot Moniker Warehouse for more than 65 local students in grades 9-12. Some come once a week, while others are there every day. At 2 p.m., the warehouse comes alive as students jump into music and digital art projects or dive into their entrepreneurial work creating videos for major companies like Sony. 

This learning format is now being used as a model for schools reopening nationwide. As our youth continually told us, “bursts” of creative time with music and other structured artistic breaks from Zoom classes are vital to keeping students engaged. 

“The studio gives me a reason to get up in the morning,” said Gabriel. “I can deal with the online school situation if I can make my music during breaks and after school.” 

The pandemic has given us a chance to reimagine high school in a way that will help our most vulnerable students. We’re listening to their voices to develop a “new now” once schools reopen, one that blends the arts, academics, and accountability, and is evolving how we serve all students. 

Brandon Steppe is founder and executive director of The David’s Harp Foundation, and a resident of the Emerald Hills neighborhood of San Diego.

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