When COVID-19 forced schools across the country to close in March 2020, millions of children were thrust into the unfamiliar and often chaotic world of remote learning.
For many families – particularly those in underserved communities – the stresses and challenges of online school have exacted a profound academic, emotional and financial toll.
Enter Mikala Streeter and Khabral Muhammad, two Atlanta educators who turned the crisis into an opportunity for innovation – providing relief for working families and a safe space for their children to learn.
In the summer of 2020, the pair co-founded Zucchinis Homeschool Co-op, a parent-led program serving students of color aged four to 10. The program is located inside The LIFE School, a project-based independent high school in downtown Atlanta, where Mikala is founding principal and Khabral is lead instructor.
Most of Zucchinis’ eight students have older high school siblings.
“When the pandemic struck, many of the parents at the high school had no safe school options for their younger children … They came to us looking for a solution. They said we really want to be able to have our kids still learn together in person,” says Mikala.
“These parents are frontline workers, entrepreneurs and people who need to be at work every day. They were concerned about their kids being at home … They just didn’t feel like the virtual environment would be the best fit for them throughout the school year.”
By housing Zucchinis inside the high school, Mikala and Khabral combined the facility and resources of a traditional school with the flexibility of a home school program. They recruited a longtime educator to handle teaching duties at Zucchinis, with additional instructional help coming from high school staff and children’s caregivers.
Mornings at Zucchinis are devoted to English, math and social studies. High school students volunteer to help with lunch specials that focus on art, fitness and music. In the afternoons, Zucchinis students follow a play-based curriculum with hands-on learning projects such as cooking, sewing and fashion, writing cursive and caring for the program’s pet turtles and rabbits.
“Each student has a project they decided that they want to pursue based on their interests,” says Mikala.
For Khabral, who manages day-to-day operations at Zucchinis, the school is both a professional and personal passion. His older son, Tashar, studies at The LIFE School and his younger son, Sura, attends Zucchinis.
“Zucchinis is really how our families have come together to share and care,” he says. “Life doesn’t stop just because the pandemic hit and the need to provide for one’s family doesn’t go away.”
Indeed, the school has been a blessing for Shakia Pennix, a yoga instructor who says her four-year-old son, Lazer, is thriving at Zucchinis. Shakia wanted a school program that provided Lazer more academic structure, while also allowing him to explore his interests and socialize with other kids.
“His development scholastically has just taken off. He was not very interested in learning before,” Shakia says. “He sees school as an environment that is fun. They allow kids the freedom to learn.”
Parents can “pop in at any time” to see their kids or help the teachers, creating the atmosphere of a home school. Zucchinis has also taken pressure off Shakia, who has more time to focus on building her business and gaining new clients.
“The program has allowed me to do my adulting when my son is in school, and I can be much more present for him when he is home,” she says.
The Walton Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute provided founding support to VELA.
“No one could have anticipated the (pandemic), but it has allowed us to create this wonderful community that is having an incredible impact,” says Mikala. “We see it every day during drop-off and pickup – the enthusiasm on the kids’ faces who come to school to learn and have fun, and the peace of mind for the families, knowing their kids are safe in the middle of a pandemic.”
Both Mikala and Khabral see Zucchinis as a model that will work even after the COVID-19 crisis abates.
“It’s not just sitting in a seat and listening to a lecture. Whether you’re five years old or 15, we want students up and moving and having some flexibility to get the blood moving in the brain and know how to make those (human) connections. We don’t see learning as a solitary act that a student is doing independently,” Mikala says.
“I see this as essential to the community that we serve. We cater toward working parents, folks who don't necessarily have the ability to access a private learning pod,” adds Khabral. “We've intentionally kept our numbers low so that we can be cautious during COVID, but should we round the corner on this COVID situation I see us expanding and utilizing all of the space we have to potentially grow our program.”