Inspiring Minds logo in grayscale
Inspiring Minds Not Only Educates But Gets Kids Excited to Learn

Inspiring Minds isn’t only about getting kids educated, but about getting kids excited about learning. The organization sees motivating children as the prime factor in helping them to break out of the cycle of poverty: to succeed and get ahead. The Inspiring Minds concept of making kids want to learn is what came through to us at Kars4Kids, loud and clear, and it’s the reason we awarded them one of our small grants. We were grateful for the opportunity to lend a hand, in a modest way, to this important work. We spoke to Inspiring Minds Executive Director Melissa Emidy to get a fuller picture of this organization that is doing so much for the youth of Providence, Rhode Island.

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us a bit about the demographic you serve?

Melissa Emidy: Inspiring Minds serves students grades PreK-5 in Providence, RI. The challenges our students face are well documented. This population overwhelmingly lives in poverty. Poverty frequently creates high mobility rates, higher incidences of hunger, and childhood physical and mental illness. More than 93% of our students are of color, more than 50% of the students we serve are English Language Learners, and 87% qualify for free or reduced lunch. The Johns Hopkins Report (2019) reported that only 13% of Providence Public Schools 3rd graders met or exceeded literacy expectations compared to 40% statewide. In some of the schools, as few as 7% are reaching ELA expectations.

Kars4Kids: In 2019-2020 you had 604 volunteers deliver 4,741 tutoring/mentoring sessions and 10,056 hours of engagement with students. Practically speaking, how does this work on a day-to-day basis? Are some students receiving more hours of help and mentoring?

Melissa Emidy: In 2019-2020, we had four programs to serve students. In the In-School Tutoring and Mentoring program, community members and college students volunteer for one or more hours weekly to work directly with students in one-on-one or small group settings, during the school day, in the child’s classroom. Our volunteers average 1.5 hours per week with the same students each week.

In the Kindergarten Project, up to three volunteers at a time give 1.5-2 hours per week, four days per week, to support a kindergarten classroom. Kindergartners need intensive support as they learn to navigate the centers’ curriculum in the classroom, where they rotate from table to table to experience different curriculum elements. In addition to the teacher and teacher assistant, our volunteers staff those tables and provide individual support to small groups of students. Our volunteers support the whole class during this period.

In Power Lunch, mentors meet with students during their lunch period to build strong relationships that lead to a growth mindset and better school attendance. These sessions are weekly for 30 minutes. In Power Lunch, the same students are served year over year from kindergarten through 5th grade.

Inspiring Minds volunteer and student participate in the Power Lunch program
Inspiring Minds volunteer and student share a Power Lunch.

In Explorers, we recruit multilingual and multiethnic youth to volunteer in our programs and support them with mentoring and opportunities to learn about careers in Providence Public Schools. Explorers are assigned to the classroom and work 3-10 hours per week with the whole class, focusing on students who need the most support.

And in our summer learning program, KidsBridge, we support 96 rising kindergartners who have not yet had a high-quality early learning experience, with a six-week full-day program to help them learn the norms and routines of school.

Inspiring Minds Explorer Program
The Explorer program mentors children, teaching them about all the many career opportunities awaiting them in the world at large.

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us a bit about your Book Bag Delivery program? Why is this program necessary?

Melissa Emidy: With the closing of schools and shift to online learning, access to educational materials and social supports were not a priority for our students’ families. There are basic needs that need to be prioritized in a crisis like this. Books were being distributed at meal sites, but many families didn’t have transportation to carry everything back with them. Our parents identified the need and we partnered with the nonprofit, Books are Wings, which was distributing the book bags at the meal sites. We had the people, they had the books! Our volunteers signed up to deliver them and we got 1,000 book bags out the door.

Kars4Kids: What is the Explorers Program about?

Melissa Emidy: Inspiring Minds, in partnership with Providence Public Schools and Rhode Island College, began the Explorers program as a pilot in October 2019. The goal is to increase exposure for multilingual and multiethnic youth to careers in teaching and ultimately expand the existing pipeline of aspiring teachers who reflect the demographics, culture, and languages of Providence students. The Explorers program has three components: work readiness training, mentoring, and a work-based learning program to understand career options, develop essential skills, understand work norms and culture, and build professional networks within the early childhood and elementary education sector. We provide a paid internship for students to work in Providence School classrooms while receiving 1:1 mentoring and additional professional development.

Kars4Kids: It seems as though you’ve paired tutoring and mentoring as a single program. Is that correct? Can you tell us how that works?

Melissa Emidy: In our programs, our volunteers initiate a two-part strategy; academic support, the clearly defined work to support the students’ academic skill development, and mentoring, the indirect work aimed at cultivating positive relationships, which will boost confidence and promote academic achievement. In each session, volunteers and students engage in about 50 minutes of structured, academically-aligned activities around classroom topics. Our volunteers intentionally incorporate conversation and relationship-building activities to address social-emotional issues and 21st-century communication skills for the final ten minutes of each session.

This attention keeps children focused and engaged in learning and feeling the strong sense of accomplishment and motivation that comes from succeeding and receiving personal feedback from a caring adult. With regular, rigorous, and thoughtful support from our volunteers, young students generally gain skills at an impressive pace, and they continue to stay on track as they gain confidence in themselves. This positive experience makes it more likely that they will have better attendance and behavior, remain in school, and continue their education and become career and college ready.

Kars4Kids: Your KidsBridge Summer Learning Program prepares children for kindergarten. Can you describe the program and the activities on offer?

Melissa Emidy: A successful transition to kindergarten is critical. Transition difficulties occur in the general kindergarten population, and problems are even more prevalent among low socioeconomic status children. Kindergarten is often the first formal schooling experience of Providence’s children.

Inspiring Minds’ offers a free, six-week, six-hour, five days per week summer learning program to engage incoming students in academics, recreation, and enrichment activities while building meaningful and positive relationships with adults. In KidsBridge, students “practice” kindergarten and build social skills, confidence, and excitement about classroom learning.

Young Inspiring Minds participant plays a learning game
Young Inspiring Minds participant plays a learning game

Before COVID, the program was in person. The program’s start and end times aligned with the participating school’s schedule, giving children and their families a six-week start getting accustomed to kindergarten routines. The program plan mirrors the school day to increase children’s familiarity with the classroom norms and school-wide expectations and ensures students and their families know what to expect in kindergarten. The program’s practice will familiarize parents with school expectations and best practices to support their students at home.

COVID forced us to transform the program into a virtual experience in 2020. The program encompassed three parts:

  • 20 hours per week of developmentally appropriate activities designed for independent play and parent-child together activities. Families were provided with three thematic at-home kits with materials and supplies for two weeks of (asynchronous) activities. Our volunteers delivered those activity kits (along with meals), each week.
  • A weekly field trip (asynchronous activities) that helped students understand how to interact and engage with the world around them during COVID. We planned primarily outdoor activities to the zoo and parks to practice wearing masks (and not touching things!).
  • Online learning opportunities (synchronous activities): each day, students and their parents could log in to the virtual classroom to meet friends and do an activity together.

Kars4Kids: What made you decide to institute your Pen Pals Club? How does it work?

Melissa Emidy: Inspiring Minds created the Pen Pal program in March 2020 to directly respond to the COVID-19 school closure. Our volunteers wanted to remain connected with their students to ensure that they were okay and had what they needed. The Pen Pal program was a natural fit and could be implemented quickly in the immediate COVID crisis. Volunteers immediately jumped on the opportunity, with 40 volunteers registering within the first week of launch and started writing to the students they supported in our in-school programs. They also loved the idea and recruited friends and family members. We opened up the program to all Providence students in the fall of 2020.

Kars4Kids: How do you engage the parents in their children’s studies? Why is this important?

Melissa Emidy:  We opened a parent hotline this year to support families as they transition to distance learning. Our kids come to us, starting with KidsBridge, and we maintain these relationships. We’re always here to help. We’ve done a lot with supporting families to understand how to access their students’ online platforms.

Kars4Kids: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the day to day operation of Inspiring Minds?

Melissa Emidy: Unprecedented is overused but to be honest, that is what it is. There are new challenges and new opportunities. We’ve shifted to 97% remote tutoring and mentoring. That’s something we had to learn. Our staff and volunteers are remarkable and have persevered through every challenge. We created new programs that serve our students better.

The struggle is keeping it all together during a pandemic. We’re a small staff team. Our full-time staff are also full-time distance learning parents with our own kids going through this challenging time. COVID has impacted our volunteers. We’ve personally lost friends and family members to the virus, and we keep going,

Kars4Kids: What’s next for Inspiring Minds?

Melissa Emidy: We’ve been here for 57 years and we plan to be here for many more. We continue to innovate, grow our volunteer corps, and we will serve more students. Once the immediate crisis is over and we get back to school, we’re going to have a lot more work to do! We know kids will need support to get back to their regular routine.

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