How Deena Pierott, Founder Of iUrban Teen, Is Using Transformative Education And Care To Dull The Double Edge Sword Of Learning During A Pandemic For Black Students
As confirmed cases of Covid-19 continue to surge, the decision for children to attend school remotely or face-to-face continues to be a double-edged sword for many families, especially families of color. While taking necessary measures to slow down the spread of the virus – including modifying school schedules and physical contact in classrooms – might be necessary for hot spot areas, there has been growing concern about the academic and psychosocial implications for some Black students who might already struggle academically or do not have access to the resources needed to be successful in an online environment, and Deena Pierott and iUrban Teen are working hard to expand their resources and provide greater access to underrepresented student groups who are the most venerable to the country’s new virtual learning normal.
iUrban Teen and transformative learning
Deena Pierott is a social entrepreneur and the founder and Executive Director of iUrban Teen, a STEM and art program designed to expose “non-traditional” STEM learners to career opportunities and to encourage high school graduation and extended learning. Pierott, who has had a wildly successful career in both the public and private sectors at organizations such as Mattel Toys, Exxon, and in the cities of Portland and Seattle, created the program while she served in a gubernatorial appointed role to the Commission on African American Affairs in Washington State. Sadly, while in this role she observed increasing high school dropout rates, especially among Black male students. “I sat in a room with all white men discussing issues about Black male students and graduation rates. Many of them really didn’t have a pulse on the challenges that many of these young men experienced. I knew it was time to do something,” Pierott reflected. Although iUrban Teen was designed to target Black male youth, the program is inclusive of all cultural backgrounds and has successfully worked with other non-traditional STEM learners across racial, cultural, and gender groups.
Although it took years of hard work and almost a decade to receive outside funding for iUrban Teen, Deena has finally been recognized for the transformative work that she has done with non-traditional STEM learners. Deena won a Global Impact Award in 2016, and was honored by President Barak Obama as a White House Champion of Change for Technology Inclusion, which was well deserved given that iUrban Teen and has grown to work with almost 9,000 students, has an 82% student retention rate, and has grown in over six different states and counting. Now, iUrban Teen offers almost ten programs and events including summits, STEM and art tours, and courses in coding, computer program design, and writing.
The tremendous care and concern that Deena has for her students and for iUrban Teen is fueled by the immense potential that she sees in the adolescents she works with. “I always tell my students that they are brilliant, because they are. Many of them just need someone to help light that spark,” Deena shared. It’s this perspective and passion for her students that has led her to continue growing iUrban Teen further to not only expand to future sites in New York and Florida but also to meet the changing needs of her students during these uncertain and confusing times. “I recognize that these are challenging times for many families. Especially families of color. This kind of dramatic change in instruction can be devastating.” It seems that Pierott is absolutely right.
The double edge sword of education during a pandemic
Some schools across the country have returned to in-person instruction, but with coronavirus cases increasing among children and some colleges and universities having to close after re-opening due to increasing outbreaks, some parents, students, and teachers are concerned about rushing back to a traditional learning environment. This is especially true for more venerable populations such as the Black community, who have experienced disproportionate rates of not only diagnoses but also fatalities due to the coronavirus. But, this is not a one-sided issue. Over the summer, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that illustrates the complexity of this topic especially for Black families and for families of color in general. While re-opening schools and sending Black students back into traditional face-to-face learning environments could invite the possibility of increasing cases and fatalities in the Black community, keeping schools online might create additional economic hardships for some Black families.
Most parents and caregivers, regardless of race or income are also concerned that their children could potentially fall behind academically, emotionally, and socially if remote learning is continued. Almost 80% of parents of color fear that their children might fall behind in their emotional and social development compared to 62% of white parents. Many Black children heavily rely on teachers and school staff as one of their main support systems and the loss of their presence can be detrimental. This is especially true given the lack of access and utilization that some members of the Black community have to mental health and other support services.
This is where iUrban Teen has stepped in. Although the program does not offer counseling or other mental health-related services, Deena Pierott requires that all her instructors participate in trauma-informed training so that they can better work and connect with their students.
“The decision to require instructors to become trained in trauma-based instruction was necessary. We work with students who have already been exposed to various forms of trauma. The pandemic and lack of connection with the outside world has only compounded these issues for many of our students. I want them to know that we care and we are they for them,” Pierott explained.
Along with ensuring that her staff is prepared to handle some of the psychosocial aspects of working with their students, Deena has also considered the impact that online learning might have on students who already struggle in academic environments. Approximately 73% of parents of color fear that their children might fall behind academically compared to 66% of white parents, which makes sense because children of color are more likely to fall behind the longer they stay away from school. Black children and other children of color have historically underperformed academically compared to white children, which is caused by multiple factors such as poor or no instructional leadership, bias, racism in the educational system, and the effects of frequent exposure to racism and discrimination.
“It makes me emotional to think of some of the experiences some of our students have faced. Our Black youth have been disenfranchised and marginalized. They have had to endure the unthinkable, which only makes it harder to perform academically,” Deena explained.
Because of this, she redesigned iUrban Teen’s programming and curriculum to be engaging and interactive. “It was a priority to make sure that our programs — even some of the more content-heavy programs — are engaging and capture the attention of our students. iUrban Teen was not initially designed to be online, but we have worked tirelessly to make this transition and to do it well.”
Poverty also impacts achievement due to a lack of access to technology and resources in the school or home, inadequate or outdated materials, and a lack of quality after-school programs and facilities. Although parents and caregivers of color have expressed deep physical health-related concerns if schools re-open, they have also expressed similar concerns over continued online instruction. Many fear that online learning will exploit these issues. Because of this iUrban Teen has given away dozens of laptops to their students to not only use with iUrban Teen programs but to also use to complete other coursework. Although Deena Pierott is still improving ways to better connect with some of her students with various learning differences, iUrban Teen has moved leaps and bounds in a matter of months to bring traditionally in-person programs to an online platform, while also considering factors such as psychosocial development, anxiety reduction, and trauma-informed lesson planning. “Of course, I want my kids to learn STEM. That’s what we do. But above all else, I want them to know that we care.”