Dr. Bernard Harris, Sr., Elementary School fourth grade student Zamirah Hall attends The Child First Authority Program in her room at home in Baltimore working on a STEM project. (Photo credit: David Marshall)

Justus Hawkins, Special to The Afro

Undeniable energy circulates as Dr. Bernard Harris, Sr. Elementary School students begin to fill the classroom after the formal school day ends. But on this day, students are not in their normal seats at the North Caroline Street school. They are scattered about Baltimore in their homes on their computers, laptops, and iPads. 

It is part of an after school virtual program created by Child First Authority (CFA). Child First Authority is a non-profit organization that develops Baltimore city youth and strengthens families by providing high-quality after school programs that promote academic achievement, social and emotional well-being, and parent leadership. 

CFA was founded in 1996 by the organization Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). 

According to CFA’s Executive Director Danista Hunte, the organization was created out of a community organizing effort from parents who wanted high-quality opportunities for young people after school and throughout summer. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CFA would have a network of staff and after school program leaders in 15 schools all over Baltimore City. Now the organization is working to make its impact online, currently serving nearly 450 students in this fall’s after school initiative which launched in October. 

“We knew that we had to identify our strongest teachers,” Hunte said, noting the challenges of keeping kids engaged virtually. 

CFA after school leaders are certified teachers. They were given a blank slate when it came to deciding what was needed for the children they are serving.

The first half of the after school programming is academic enrichment. The second half of the program, Hunte said, “ is time to bring the fun.” Students participate in classes ranging from karate, fitness, art, culinary, dance, and STEM, all on Zoom. The organization provided children with specific supply kits so they would have all the materials needed to make their after school sessions successful.

One of the kits is for art. The square white box is filled to the brim with canvases, mosaic materials, paints, and clay. Students also received water bottles, yoga mats, and an exercise ball for physical activities.

Ten-year-old Zamirah Hall knows all about it. On most days you can find the fourth grader taking part in CFA’s STEM and physical education programs. Hall likes how she has been able to ask questions and use the leftover items in her STEM kit for other experiments. 

“It’s been good. I haven’t had any problems or anything,” Hall said. “I have had a lot of fun.”

Hall’s mother, Lakisha Venzen-Hall happens to be a teacher at Harris. Hall is her second child involved with CFA’s after school programs. 

“It keeps my daughter engaged,” Venzen-Hall said. According to Venzen-Hall, going online every day after school has been helpful. After the programs are over, Hall runs to her mother, and they both discuss what she learned.

“She would tell me more about what she’s doing in CFA than she would in her normal school day online,” Venzen-Hall said.

Although the programs are going well, CFA said virtual engagement with children does come with some challenges.

“Everyone is fatigued. We’re at month eight of the pandemic, ” Hunte said. She added, “students are at a screen up to six hours a day when they hit 2:30, and then we ask them to come back on.” 

But the organization said the after school engagement is vital to the success of the children it serves because the activities provide social and emotional learning skills that allow students to manage their emotions effectively. 

“I am always proud of the Child First team, but the ways in which they have shown-up during this difficult period is inspiring. The uncertainty of our current situation causes some expected frustration. However, the team continues to be resilient, responsive, creative, and flexible,” Hunte said.

Donors support this project through CFA’s COVID Cares campaign, which in addition to the after school program materials, has raised funds to provide basic school supplies for 1,000 children in Baltimore since the start of the pandemic. 

To learn more about how you can support the CFA after school project and other CFA programs serving children visit http://childfirstauthority.org/child-first-covid-cares-2020/.

Justus Hawkins is a Strategic Communication major in the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University.