In PODS, students of color are finding academic success

EAGER TO LEARN: Students in the PODS program are excited to engage with community members, staff and other students who look like them, says Shaunda Sandford, one of the program's leaders. Attendance is high, and early anecdotal evidence suggests academic improvement. Photo courtesy of Asheville City Schools

A month into a program aimed at addressing the opportunity gap between Black and white students in the Asheville City Schools, Kidada Wynn already sees a world of improvement. “We’ve seen a dynamic change in our students’ attitudes and our leaders’ confidence,” the ACS director of student services told members of Asheville City Council at its meeting of Oct. 13

“This is the first time we’ve seen equity in action in decades,” she continued. 

The Positive Opportunities to Develop Success, or PODS, program was in its fifth week of active instruction, explained Shaunda Sandford, director of resident services for the Asheville Housing Authority and chair of the Asheville City School Board. Students meet in small groups to receive support with online learning; PODS staff act as a liaison between ACS teachers and students to engage and offer additional enrichment for kids who are struggling academically. 

Presently, 23 PODS are serving 200 students at 11 community sites. In the coming weeks, two additional sites will open at Pisgah View and Deaverview apartments; a Spanish-speaking POD at the Burton Street Recreation Center started Oct. 13. Roughly 95% of the attendees are students of color or live in public housing.

“This is the first time ever they get to be in classrooms with children who look like them,” Sandford said. “Typically, there may be one or two brown or Black students in a classroom, but here, they actually go to school with kids that look like them, and they’re being taught by community members and staff who look like them.”

Addressing the opportunity gap within the Asheville City School system was one of the goals outlined in City Manager Debra Campbell’s 30/60/90 day work plan to promote racial justice and boost economic inclusion for marginalized groups. The academic performance disparity between ACS’ Black and white students is already the largest in the state; national experts fear this could worsen during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to ACS demographic data for the 2020-21 school year, 21% of the district’s 4,529 students identified as Black, 8% as Hispanic and 7% as two or more races. Citywide, Asheville’s population is 11.7% Black, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Supported by the city of Asheville, Asheville City Schools, the Asheville Housing Authority and several local nonprofits, the majority of PODS sites offer free after-school care, a huge help to families living in public housing who make, on average, less than $7,000 annually, Wynn noted.

Kids are excited to learn and eager to join the program, with some students showing up at PODS sites at 7:30 a.m. hoping to join the group, Sandford said. The program waitlist currently has 200 students; right now, the biggest hurdle for expansion is recruiting enough staff to continue to provide individualized assistance. Longer term, the PODS team hopes to expand the model to create after-school care and programming for spring and summer vacations. 

“It’s about time that we focus on the students and put them first for a change,” Wynn said. “This program has given them the opportunity to dismantle the achievement and opportunity gap.”


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About Molly Horak
Molly Horak served as a reporter at Mountain Xpress. Follow me @molly_horak

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