Public TV stations adapt strategies for supporting out-of-school learning

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With educators struggling to address learning deficits that widened during the coronavirus pandemic, public TV stations are refining their strategies to engage students outside the classroom.

Eight Ohio PBS stations are launching a collaborative educational project that will provide toolkits of themed activities, virtual field trips and interactive community events for elementary students, starting this fall. The Ohio Department of Education has provided $5 million to fund the three-year project.

And starting July 1, WNET in New York City will offer a new season of its reformatted Camp TV, a series that aims to address learning losses exacerbated by the pandemic and those that typically occur during summer break. Episodes debuting this summer will run as a faster-paced half-hour and feature hands-on lessons in math, literacy, science, arts, movement and mindfulness geared for children ages 5–10. The series’ second season was broadcast by 126 PBS stations in 2021.

The two projects are strategic responses by public TV stations to help students, parents and educators recover from setbacks and disruptions in K–12 education that began during school closures in 2020. A nationwide study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that students were on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

In addition, parents report that students’ social and emotional skills and their attention spans have suffered during the pandemic, said Jason Dennison, senior manager, learning services at Public Media Connect, which includes CET in Cincinnati and ThinkTV in Dayton, Ohio.

“What we hope to do is give students, with guidance from an after-school leader or their parents at home, the opportunity to explore, to think and to imagine,” Dennison said. “It’s that creative process that we think is going to help students who have gone through this pandemic accelerate their learning and emerge with the skills to be confident and resilient.”

Camp in a box

The Ohio initiative grew out of the educational programming the state’s public TV stations developed to support remote learning during the pandemic. When schools closed in 2020, the stations provided a regular broadcast schedule of PBS programs linked to a curriculum, learning materials for parents, virtual camps, and STEM and literacy workshops for children and their caregivers.

In September 2020, the superintendent of the Ohio Department of Education contacted Kevin Martin, president of Ideastream Public Media in Cleveland, to invite the Ohio PBS stations to submit a proposal to expand the content and support they had provided during COVID lockdowns.  

“One of the things that the superintendent said that really impressed me is that learning does not have to happen just within the four walls of the school building,” Martin said. “It should happen and be accessible for students outside the school property.”

Martin is president of the Ohio Educational Television Stations, an association that supports lifelong learning through public telecommunications. He recruited Kitty Lensman, president and CEO of Public Media Connect, to coordinate the work of the stations’ educational experts, he said.

Lensman

The Public Media Connect stations had offered a successful series of virtual camps during the summers of 2020 and 2021 that attracted 45,000 participants, Lensman said. Based on that model, the stations made virtual camps a cornerstone of their proposal for Ohio Learns 360 by emphasizing educational and enrichment activities for after-school programs and summer camps.

They created Camp-in-a-Box, a set of toolkits with hands-on activities based on the curricula of PBS Kids shows such as Wild Kratts and Odd Squad. The 14 toolkits will be split between students in grades K–2 and 3–5. For each group, the toolkits provide five days of learning activities, according to Dennison.

Each station will receive 50 toolkits and will then train local teachers and after-school staff to present the curriculum.

The toolkits and training model of Ohio Learns 360 responds to what the stations heard from teachers and aftercare providers after the pandemic, according to Dennison.

“They have great intentions to do these camps, but they don’t have the tools,” Lensman said.

Broadcast programming isn’t part of the project. Students can participate in virtual programs from home through streaming videos on their stations’ websites or by joining activities offered in after-school programs or summer camps.

The project will also produce eight virtual field trips that showcase cultural attractions from across the state. “With these virtual field trips, we’ll be able to connect students to experiences in Ohio museums from home, talk live with experts and engage in learning beyond the classroom,” said Dennison, the statewide project co-lead for Ohio Learns 360.

Another key feature of the initiative is Afterschool 360, a series of 64 weekly webinars to be delivered by the stations. The sessions, which can be livestreamed in children’s homes or in after-school programs, will focus on building literacy, math, and social and emotional skills.

Another series of webinars, called Parent Power, will provide advice to parents on how to support their children’s education. Developed by WOSU in Columbus, the webinars will feature panels of experts discussing topics suggested by a family advisory board.

The final component of the project is a series of community events that offer activities and resources for elementary school students. Each station will organize its own events, which could include a back-to-school program that provides free backpacks and school supplies, or an outdoor event in a park featuring PBS characters and educational activities, Dennison said.

While many community events hosted by PBS stations are geared for preschool children, the activities developed for Ohio Learns 360 will be tailored for elementary-school students. “What we are encouraging the stations to do after the pandemic, as we start to have in-person events again, is to really engage with students and their families around the topics and issues for which PBS is uniquely positioned,” Dennison said.

Educational staffers at each of the eight stations are working on Ohio Learns 360; Public Media Connect, which is leading the initiative, has hired three staff to support and manage the project. “No one station could do this alone,” Lensman said. “By working together, and everybody carrying a piece of the project, it allows us to do even more and makes us more efficient. Our reach into the state is going to be tremendous.”

Camp on TV

WNET has taken a different approach to extending the educational services it launched during the pandemic. It is revamping its television series that offers enriching activities during the summer.

When summer camps were cancelled in 2020, WNET launched Camp TV as an hourlong program geared for children ages 5–10. The nationally distributed series features Broadway performers who guide children through a series of hands-on activities based on kid-friendly themes.

“It’s really intended to simulate a day-camp experience in a child’s home, where they could learn something surprising and new from these amazing teaching artists and educators,” says Sandra Sheppard, director and EP of Kids’ Media and Education for The WNET Group.

In its first two seasons, Camp TV reached a combined viewership of 6.5 million through broadcast TV or video streaming through its website. For Season 3, which debuts next month, WNET has condensed the format into half-hour episodes.

Mia Weinberger, left, joins Zachary Noah Piser as co-counselor for the third season of “Camp TV.”

WNET decided to shorten the programs so that the series conforms to the half-hour format of many PBS Kids’ shows. Station programmers told WNET that they’d prefer airing 30-minute episodes, Sheppard said. “It’s added some energy — the pacing is just a little bit faster,” she said. “We just think it will be an engaging length for broadcast, and it may work even better for stations’ schedules.”

WNET has produced 10 original episodes for Camp TV’s new season and repackaged 10 shows from previous seasons into half-hours. The new episodes include a segment called “Mindful Me,” which teaches children how to manage their emotions in a positive way.

Producers are also introducing segments provided by PBS stations across the country. For example, viewers will conduct hands-on science experiments with host Mister C in segments from ThinkTV’s Full STEAM Ahead series and join “Yoga with Miss B” in segments produced by PBS North Carolina.

“What stations have said to us is it’s a great way for them to work with their local not-for-profit partners to engage them in a project that supports summer learning and supports literacy,” Sheppard said.

Camp TV is the second children’s series WNET created to support remote learning. Its first show, Let’s Learn, launched early in the pandemic and is available for broadcast by other stations. It features teachers presenting classroom lessons from their homes to kids ages 3–8.

The New York City Department of Education approached WNET about creating a program that allows teachers to connect with students learning at home. With 140 episodes already distributed to PBS stations, WNET plans to continue producing the show in 2022, contingent on funding.  

“Parents really applauded us for doing this show,” Sheppard said. “There are a lot of children who are unfortunately not at grade level, and the pandemic just exacerbated that issue. … We are fully committed to continuing these instructional media efforts to support kids and families.”

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